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Tears, apologies, pleas don’t sway judge in Blago re-sentencing

Patti Blagojevich (left) wife of ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, her daughters Annie (center) and Amy listen to their attorney speaking at the federal courthouse on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Chicago after U.S. District Judge James Zagel resentenced Blagojevich's to his original 14-year term. | Tae-Gyun Kim/AP

Rod Blagojevich’s young daughters wept openly in the front row of a federal courtroom, clutching the former first lady of Illinois as it became clear there would be no mercy for the father who once took them to see Cubs games and shop for American Girl dolls.

That man, now thinner, is locked up in a Colorado prison with stark-white hair. He appeared Tuesday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, via a pixelated and slightly garbled video transmission. But the picture was clear enough to see Blagojevich grimace when Amy Blagojevich said her relationship with her father has become “superficial.”

If U.S. District Judge James Zagel was moved, he didn’t show it. Instead, he hammered the disgraced former governor all over again, reinstating a 14-year prison sentence that could keep Blagojevich locked up until 2024. Zagel did so despite an appellate court ruling that tossed five of Blagojevich’s convictions last year, despite pleas from the two Blagojevich daughters and despite claims that Blagojevich has been humbled in prison.

“I made mistakes,” Blagojevich, 59, said, his voice filling Zagel’s downtown Chicago courtroom. “I regret those mistakes and those judgments. And I’m sorry, your honor. I wish I could find a way to turn the clock back and make different choices. But that is not possible.”

Blagojevich said he was grateful for the second chance given to him by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year, which completely wiped out his original sentence. He wore a blue-green, short-sleeved prison outfit and appeared in a room with concrete walls. A federal government seal appeared over his right shoulder, above a set of chairs in the background.

But Zagel wound up echoing his comments from Blagojevich’s first sentencing hearing in 2011, telling the courtroom “the fabric of this state is torn.” The judge paid little attention to the more than 100 letters from fellow inmates describing Blagojevich as a model prisoner. And he offered brief sympathy to Blagojevich’s daughters.

The judge added, “the fault lies in the governor, and no one else.”

Blagojevich shook his head as Zagel dashed his hopes of an early release from prison. After the hearing, the former governor was given a brief moment with his family. He could be heard through a courtroom audio feed praising his daughters. He also comforted his children and told them, “I love you.”

Patti Blagojevich later called Zagel’s decision “unusually cruel and heartless and unfair.” She said Zagel has an “unwillingness to bestow even the smallest amount of leniency or mercy or kindness.” And she said the emotional words of her daughters mattered little to him.

“It’s clear it didn’t make any difference what they said,” Patti Blagojevich said. “They could have written a 12-page missive . . . It wouldn’t have made any difference what they did or what anyone said. The judge clearly made up his mind before it even started.”

Blagojevich attorney Leonard Goodman said his client may once again try to take his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. On the audio feed after the hearing, Blagojevich could be heard asking his lawyer about legal options.

Blagojevich’s brother, Robert Blagojevich, also attended the hearing and called the sentence “egregiously high.” But he also said he watched, in awe, as his nieces stood up for their father in court. He said he is “saddened by the bad hand they’ve been dealt.”

Robert Blagojevich tells reporters Tuesday that he's disappointed that a federal judge refused to reduce his brother's 14-year prison sentence. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Robert Blagojevich tells reporters Tuesday that he’s disappointed that a federal judge refused to reduce his brother’s 14-year prison sentence. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Annie Blagojevich, who burst into tears as a toddler during a media interrogation of her father a decade ago, appeared Tuesday before Zagel. Now 13, she said she shares her father’s interest in classical music and history, and she said he still emails her multiple times a day as she prepares for tests at school.

“I almost don’t want to grow up because I want to wait for him to come home,” Annie Blagojevich said.

Amy Blagojevich, 20, said emails, phone calls and visits “only go so far,” and she described the humiliation she feels crying in front of other inmates and prison guards. Still, she said her father “has never given up on us, and we will never give up on him.”

Blagojevich appeared to wipe away a tear while his older daughter spoke. Later, he told Zagel more than four years in prison have taught him to live life so he never again risks losing his “family or liberty.”

He described the influence of his fellow inmates — people serving time for crimes ranging from “white-collar” offenses to crimes like bank robberies and sex offenses.

“They helped me begin the process of reconciliation,” Blagojevich said. “Holding onto the anger was no good.”

Helping others, he said, “helped quell the anger I felt about everything that happened.”

Blagojevich spoke remorsefully about his legacy, telling the judge he winces every time he hears his name alongside “corruption” because of the damage the tag has brought to his family.

Still, he returned to familiar themes by comparing his ordeal to the trials of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

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Despite his more than 15 minutes of reflection, Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Riggs Bonamici told Zagel the former governor hasn’t fully taken responsibility for his actions — prompting Patti and Amy Blagojevich to shake their heads.

Bonamici said Blagojevich “has never acknowledged his criminal conduct,” even though he admitted he “made mistakes.” And she argued he’s shown no signs of rehabilitation in prison, despite the support of his fellow inmates.

“As long as the defendant is unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for the actions that he did and what he actually meant when he did it, there can be no rehabilitation. There can be no reconciliation, as he puts it,” Bonamici said.

Zagel ultimately gave Blagojevich credit for accepting responsibility, just as he did in 2011. He also shot down arguments by Goodman that the appellate court ruling undid any claim that Blagojevich sought only political, as opposed to personal, enrichment.

Amy and Annie Blagojevich began to cry into their mother’s shoulders as the judge’s words began to offer few signs of hope. When the hearing ended, the Blagojevich daughters stood up in the courtroom and wept into the arms of family members.

Patti Blagojevich stood with them, and she tried to console her daughters.

Meanwhile, Rod Blagojevich looked close enough to reach out and touch his family. But the man on the grainy video feed was really standing in Colorado.

One thousand miles away from his sobbing children.

Contributing: Natalie Watts

In this courtroom sketch, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, right, appears via video from a Colorado prison during his re-sentencing in a federal courtroom in Chicago. | AP Photo/Tom Gianni

In this courtroom sketch, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (right) appears via video from a Colorado prison during his re-sentencing in a federal courtroom in Chicago. | AP Photo/Tom Gianni