Facing long odds, Blagojevich tries again with appellate court

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Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. | AP

If five years behind bars have truly changed Rod Blagojevich, it didn’t sway the judge who doubled-down on the former governor’s 14-year prison sentence last year.

So Tuesday morning, Blagojevich’s lawyers put his fate back in the hands of three appellate judges, telling the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that “the man before the court in 2016 was different” from the brash and defiant politician who originally landed the stiff public-corruption sentence in 2011.

When the arguments ended, Blagojevich and his family may have found solace in one comment from a jurist — that even if U.S. District Judge James Zagel wasn’t persuaded to lower Blagojevich’s sentence after reading glowing letters from more than 100 of his fellow inmates, another judge might have been.

But in the end, they found themselves back where they stood two years ago: hoping the appeals court will see things their way, send the case back to Zagel or even set the imprisoned Democrat free.

The odds are not in Blagojevich’s favor.

The three judges who heard arguments Tuesday — Frank Easterbrook, Michael Kanne and Ilana Rovner — are the same judges who found in July 2015 that “it is not possible to call 168 months unlawfully high for Blagojevich’s crimes.” But as former Illinois First Lady Patti Blagojevich pointed out, they are also the same judges who triggered his resentencing hearing last August. Even though Zagel gave him 14 years all over again, Blagojevich at least had the chance to ask for less time.

“They didn’t have to do that,” Patti Blagojevich said.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich’s request for a commutation is still pending before President Donald Trump. Patti Blagojevich said Tuesday that, “a thousand times, my family would prefer that we win in the appellate court than get some kind of pardon.”

The former governor, 60, is not due to leave federal prison until May 2024 and was not present for Tuesday’s arguments. The appeals court has no deadline to decide his case.

The 30-minute hearing Tuesday on the 27th floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse was a rerun of sorts of Blagojevich’s first appeal. But his lawyers have seized on one new issue: The laudatory inmate letters about Blagojevich.

Zagel seemed to dismiss the letters at sentencing, saying the inmates “don’t know him and they don’t know him in the context of a powerful officeholder in Congress and in Illinois.” Blagojevich’s good works in prison were “not especially germane to my decision today,” the judge said in August.

Nearly all of the questions from the three-judge panel Tuesday came from Rovner, who dwelled on the letters and Zagel’s decision to credit Blagojevich with acceptance of responsibility in 2011 and 2016. She said Blagojevich has “conducted himself admirably in prison,” as described in the letters.

“And perhaps this is something that a different judge would give, you know, more weight to,” Rovner said.

But she also asked whether Zagel was required to do so.

Blagojevich lawyer Michael Nash argued Zagel shouldn’t have dismissed them out of hand. He and co-counsel Leonard Goodman also called Blagojevich’s acceptance-of-responsibility credit a “non-issue.” At sentencing in August, Blagojevich told Zagel, “I made many mistakes and many misjudgments, and I regret those mistakes and misjudgments. I’m sorry for them.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Riggs Bonamici said Blagojevich “still hasn’t admitted the crimes that he committed.”

After the hearing, Goodman said “it’s very hard to tell” which way the judges were leaning. He continued to insist that the government prosecuted Blagojevich “for something that wasn’t a crime” — political dealmaking — and he said “the government wants him to apologize for crimes that he didn’t commit.”

“I’d like to see some remorse from the government for putting him through that,” Goodman said.

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