April 21, 2010 for Medill Reports
by Josh Lederman

CHICAGO — A federal judge told former Gov. Rod Blagojevich Wednesday he won’t waste the jury’s time playing hundreds of hours of secret recordings, but he invited the defense to submit a list of recordings it may want played for the jury, and will consider each individually.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel likened himself to a referee during a long boxing analogy admonishing the former governor, who Tuesday night made personal attacks against U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald for keeping tapes from the jury that Blagojevich says would clear his name during his public corruption trial.

“I will not permit the legal equivalent of head butts,” Zagel said. “The Court decides all of these questions, not the lawyers for the defendants or the prosecutors.”

Rod Blagojevich was silent during the status hearing Wednesday, but as he arrived for court, he was characteristically jovial, shaking hands and working a line of observers waiting to enter the courtroom like the rope line of a campaign rally.

“I’m relieved with what the judge had to say today with regard to giving me a chance to play the taped conversations that matter,” Blagojevich said after the hearing.

By May 14, Blagojevich should submit a non-binding list of recordings he may want to play at trial, Zagel said, categorically ruling out that he will allow all the tapes to be played.

The crux of the prosecution’s case rests within hundreds of hours of secretly tape-recorded conversations between the former governor, his co-defendants and others. Prosecutors allege that the tapes prove that Blagojevich engaged in fraudulent conduct, including attempts to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

The former governor’s Tuesday attack on Fitzgerald, in which he accused him of lying to cover up an unjustified arrest, came the day after the prosecution filed a number of motions attempting to limit what the defense can say and what evidence it can present at trial.

For instance, the motion sought to prevent Blagojevich from telling the jury he wishes all the tapes could be heard, because it would unfairly portray the prosecution as withholding evidence.

“Suddenly, we get hit by this sneaky tactic of the government saying ‘oh no, even if he testifies, we don’t want those tapes played’,” said Sam Adam, one of Blagojevich’s lawyers. “We knew that we had to contest what they said and we knew that they only said that because it must have come from the top, it must have come from Mr. Fitzgerald.” Adam acknowledged, however, that the attack “may have been a little too personal.”

Zagel also ruled against a motion filed Thursday by the governor’s brother, Robert Blagojevich, asking to be tried separately. Robert Blagojevich, who is named as a co-defendant, argued he would not get a fair trial if he is tried alongside his brother.

“In my experience, this is usually favorable to the defendant against whom there is lesser evidence,” Zagel said about Robert Blagojevich. “I simply don’t think he’s prejudiced by this.”

The parties are scheduled to appear before the judge April 30 to continue discussing pre-trial issues.