Jurors: Blago narrowly avoided more convictions

August 18, 2010 6:55:39 AM PDT
While former governor Rod Blagojevich faces up to five years in prison for one conviction, he came close to a guilty verdict on at least one other, more serious charge.

Just one juror made the difference. It was a jury that, according to its foreman, would have continued deliberating. In fact, he said they wanted to do so but simply realized they were not going to agree on all of the counts.

The jury was composed of six men and six women from all different walks of life. The jury foreman, 66-year-old James Matsumoto, is a former Marine and former Vietnam veteran. The youngest member of the jury is a 21-year-old student, Erik Sarnello.

Both Matsumoto and Sarnello said it was a lone juror that stood in the way of a guilty verdict for both Blagojevich brothers on the three counts of extortion and bribery that were related to the open U.S. Senate seat. According to them, there appeared to have been resistance on every charge. And on any given charge, there were anywhere from one to five holdouts.

"People are people. They all have their own views and opinions of what they are hearing and seeing. There are basic fundamental differences in everybody's opinions," said Sarnello.

"It was a difference of opinion," said Matsumoto. "People looked at the evidence and saw something different than the way I, or whoever else was voting, from the way I was."

A third juror echoed what Sarnello said, that while the deliberations had gotten emotional at times, there was never animosity among them. He also refused to identify the lone juror who voted against convicting former governor Blagojevich under the charges that were related to selling the open U.S. Senate seat.

"We'd listen to a phone call and people would say that supports his guilt, and she would say that supports his innocence, such a difference the way she saw it," said Sarnello, of Itasca, Ill.

Sarnello said that he believed after day three of deliberations that the lone holdout on those counts was not going to change her mind. He spent the last nine weeks of his life listening to the trial, including 14 days of deliberations. How? Why? What happened? How did it happen? Sarnello said they voted on the charges anywhere from six to eight times.

"In the beginning, you know, a little more hostility, a lot of emotion in the beginning. Everyone brought their feelings in the room," Sarnello said. "People shut down because of that. They didn't want to deal with all the emotions, so we stepped back and took the emotions out of it, and go over the evidence and a more logical approach, and went from there. People did change their minds."

Sarnello, who leaves for college shortly, said it was the first jury he's ever served on.

"I learned a lot about people, emotions, their views," he said. "I did get bored occasionally, but, you know, sitting in a courtroom is not quite what I'm used to, but I did my best."

Another juror previously said prosecutors should make the case less complicated for the retrial. Sarnello said he agrees.

"The one thing we all felt was that they didn't follow the timelines. It was scattered. One minute they would talk about two events two years apart, and then someone else would talk about something all over the place," Sarnello said. "We want everything consecutive, and follow a timeline for everything to come together."

Sarnello said Rod Blagojevich's decision not to testify did not affect his decision as a juror. But Sarnello said the defense attorneys' style made some difference.

"You might hear the same tone for eight hours straight, and then the defense steps up and you get the show. It woke it up a little bit," he said.

The jury found Blagojevich guilty on one count of making false statements Tuesday. They were hung on the other 23 counts.

Matsumoto said everyone on the jury was independently minded. He said the process was "frustrating and exhausting," but jurors were "extremely respectful to each other."

Matsumoto said he voted guilty on all counts against Rod and Rob Blagojevich, but could not get the entire jury to agree.

"They asked if I would serve as foreman, and I said I would. But I knew immediately it was the wrong decision," said Matsumoto.

The Northwest Side resident said he knew at the end of last week that coming to a verdict on most of the counts was going to be hopeless.

"The people that said not guilty were adamant, and I respect their decision because I think it was based on how they looked at the evidence," said Matsumoto.

He looked at the evidence the way prosecutors had hoped every juror would.

"I thought the government proved its case," said Matsumoto.

Matsumoto says the jury never stopped deliberating. He says even on Tuesday there were some jurors that wanted to keep going. But, at the end, they all realized it was going to be pointless. As a foreman, he is disappointed he could not sway others.

"It is always frustrating when they don't accept your logic as being logical," said Matsumoto.

He says while he used logical inference to draw a conclusion, some jurors could not get past the lack of a smoking gun. He says in his opinion, the government's strongest evidence was the sale of the Senate seat.

Despite a disappointing outcome, Matsumoto has great respect for his jury.

"There wasn't any animosity; there wasn't any yelling or name-calling," said Matsumoto.

During the trial, Matsumoto was known only as juror #135, an Asian man and retired videotape librarian. He was born in a detention camp.


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