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How Blagojevich Lawyer Sam Adam Jr. Plans to Defend His Client

MIGHTY MOUTH: The defense lawyer Sam Adam Jr. doesn’t merely argue cases—he performs, typically closing with an eruption of righteous indignation, and his clients (R. Kelly, for one) often walk free. Now Adam is set to strut and fret upon the brightly lit stage of former governor Rod Blagojevich’s corruption trial—and he aims to bring down the house

Photo Illustration: Taylor Castle

He knew this feeling. Knew it the way he knew the cracked plaster, the fluorescent lights, the drab halls of the courthouse at 26th and Cal—the place where, as a boy, he had played checkers with deputies and watched his father, a criminal defense legend, work a judge, a jury, a witness. It was what had gotten him here, before his own packed courtroom, rising to deliver the closing argument in one of the biggest celebrity heater cases in years: the child pornography trial of the superstar singer R. Kelly. The feeling was righteous indignation, and, as prosecutors were about to find out that day, June 12, 2008, no one did it better than Sam Adam Jr.

The prosecution went first. Shauna Boliker, an assistant Cook County state’s attorney, told the jury that 14 witnesses—14!—had identified Kelly as the man on a videotape having sex with a 13-year-old girl. “This is not a whodunit,” she said with her own indignation. “It is a he-did-it.”

Up stepped Adam. Stocky, with a round face that can register a dozen different shades of mock astonishment, he started with a slow smolder, built to a crackling umbrage, then burst into a booming, raving, fulminating bellow. Kelly had a mole on his back, Adam cried. But when the sex video was shown in court, the mole came and went—came and went! Sometimes it was there; sometimes it wasn’t! “How does that mole come and go?” he roared. Witnesses? Please! The prosecution’s star testifier “came in here and absolutely lied to you!” Sweat streamed. His voice dropped to a whisper, rose to a howl. The whole thing was unbelievable, he said. “[Kelly’s accuser] is a 13-year-old girl having raunchy, dirty, nasty sex . . . with a superstar—I mean, a superstar—who’s won Grammy Awards, and she tells no one? Never?” Adam exploded, his voice strained to the breaking point. “You couldn’t keep a 13-year-old girl’s mouth quiet about having Hannah Montana tickets!” he said, pounding his fist on a high beam in front of the jury box.

By the time it was over, working without notes, he had referenced The Office, the comedian Dave Chappelle, Hannah Montana, Santa, God, Satan, McDonald’s restaurants, and Ralph Kramden. He rode the Feeling for the better part of an hour before sitting back down, spent, leaving the courtroom abuzz.

The verdict came after five hours of deliberation: not guilty on all counts. In the days that followed, Adam was lionized and lampooned—called a rising star and a clown. Just 35 at the time, he was to some the heir apparent to his mentor, the renowned criminal defense attorney Ed Genson (the lead attorney on the Kelly case and the person Adam credits for getting the win). To others, he was a cringe-inducing showboat.

Adam dismissed both the praise and the pillorying. The case, he told me in March, was about the facts—and about Genson picking a good jury. Still, the triumph affirmed his personal courtroom credo. “A jury trial is a show, nothing but a show,” Adam said with an unapologetic smile. “He who puts on the best show, he who entertains the most, he who can bring [his] point in the most effective way, wins. Hands down.”

 
FATHER AND SON: Adam Jr. (top) with his father, the defense attorney Sam Adam, during the trial of the singer R. Kelly; and (bottom) at his father’s side as a boy.
FATHER AND SON: Adam Jr. (top) with his father, the defense attorney Sam Adam, during the trial of the singer R. Kelly; and (bottom) at his father’s side as a boy.He will have a prime chance to test that premise in June, when he begins what will likely be a long, hot summer defending a client who may be a bigger ham than he—the former Illinois governor, radio host, talk show bellyacher, Northwestern University ethics lecturer for a day, and now Celebrity Apprentice castoff Rod Blagojevich. It’s unclear exactly what role Adam will play on a defense team that also includes his father—the venerable criminal defense attorney Sam Adam Sr.—as well as the lawyers Sheldon Sorosky, Mike Gillespie, and Mark Martin.

So far, however, Adam Jr. has been the public face of the defense. And, true to form, his over-the-top appearances have been eclipsed only by the bombast and unrestrained theatricality of Blagojevich himself. In February, for instance, when Blagojevich was reindicted (a legal maneuver that did not allege any new wrongdoing by the former governor), Adam strode into the bright lights and the bouquet of microphones, turning what in the hands of another lawyer might have been a predictable bout of no-comment rope-a-dope into a freewheeling 20 minutes of rhetorical haymakers that would have put starch in Don King’s fright wig.

Asked about the now infamous profanity-laced voice recordings of Blagojevich discussing the vacated U.S. Senate seat of President Barack Obama, Adam unloaded like a preacher whose very faith had been questioned. If all of the tapes were played, he said, his voice rising, they’d show that his client was innocent!You guys are good, hard-working journalists,” he continued. “Why aren’t you demanding that these tapes get played? We shouldn’t have a system here in which the government comes in and tapes and you don’t get to the truth! That’s what we want here. The truth!”

The gathered reporters watched in seeming amusement as Adam worked himself into a lather. “If you heard Governor Blagojevich [in court today], if you heard him when he entered his plea, he didn’t enter a plea of not guilty! He entered a plea of innocence! And you know why he entered that? Because he is innocent, and those tapes will show it.”

It was a calculated performance, one aimed directly at getting a six o’clock sound bite. More to the point, it answered the question: Why would a lawyer let a seeming loose cannon like Blagojevich off the media leash, allow him to pop up on a reality show and doff the coif on virtually any talk show that will have him?

Adam put it this way to me: “How do you turn him from an indicted ex-governor into someone you can believe? He’s a celebrity idiot, but he is a celebrity. That has a purpose to it, and the purpose is to get out here and yell, ‘I didn’t do to it.’”

That, according to plan, has been Blagojevich’s shtick, a good example of which was a press conference in late April outside the modest South Side townhouse that Sam Adam Jr. and his father use as a home office. Striding up to the microphones at exactly 5:03 p.m.—the perfect time to grab the lead on all the evening news broadcasts—Blagojevich laced into Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney. His voice a mocking sneer, Blagojevich challenged the prosecutor to show up for a hearing the next day, “if you’re man enough.”

At the end of the two-minute rant, I was invited into the comfortable living room of the townhouse to interview Blagojevich about Adam. Upstairs, a group of eight or so lawyers and paralegals, noses pressed to their computer screens, were clacking away like a steno pool. (“Team Blagojevich,” a beaming Adam told me.) Downstairs, Blagojevich settled into a cozy chair. Adam, he said, is “the little brother I never had,” but also a kindred spirit. “There are some people who just have a natural gift, who have a certain God-given skill that separates them from most other people in the same profession,” Blagojevich said. “Whether it’s Michael Jordan in basketball, Elvis in music—[Adam] has that ability as a lawyer.”

Adam’s shtick, on the other hand, “is righteous indignation,” Adam told me after a morning hearing on a murder case at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California. “I am passionate. I always figured I can make them think, God, he believes in this. This can’t be the way this happened. Sam wouldn’t lie. Sam couldn’t feel this way if the state were right. And that’s my shtick. I get worked up.” He grins. “Very easily worked up. If it works, it works. If not . . .” He shrugs, laughing. “I don’t know, I guess I can always pump gas.”

In his 11 years of practicing law, it has worked—astonishingly well. While most criminal defense attorneys would be thrilled to break even on cases, Adam, by his reckoning (and his father’s), boasts a record of 60 and 11—“60 and 5 if you count the cases where I did the closing,” he adds.

“It’s really rather unusual,” says Sam Adam Sr. “I don’t think he’s lost a case in three years.” And not just the cop-didn’t-show-up-for-the-speeding-ticket slam dunks. In July 2009, a client of Adam’s—charged with murder for stabbing his neighbor 61 times—walked after Adam persuaded the jury that the client panicked when that neighbor, who was gay, tried to sexually assault him. I personally sat in on a murder trial in which Adam’s female client was caught on security videotape stabbing the victim. Melinda Goodman, too, walked after an impassioned self-defense argument by Adam.

“Sam just has a really good way with juries,” acknowledges Rob Robertson, a former Cook County prosecutor who was on the losing end of one of Adam’s performances. “He has a style where he can be emotional and almost theatrical but without losing his credibility. He doesn’t come across as phony.”

The question now is whether the flamboyant style—the righteous indignation shtick that has worked so well in the lunch-bucket case grinder that is 26th and Cal—will play in the far fustier, more formal confines of federal court.

 
Adam Jr. with his mentor, Ed Genson, who withdrew from Blagojevich’s defense
Adam Jr. with his mentor, Ed Genson, who withdrew from Blagojevich’s defense  Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“I love 26th and California,” Sam Adam said as he strode through the bustling speckle-tiled hallway of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse one day in March, briefcase bouncing at his hip as he navigated the obstacle course of lawyers and bailiffs, deputies and defendants, the wretched refuse of the busiest felony courthouse in America. I laughed and searched his face, expecting to find an ironic smirk—you hear “I love 26th and California” about as often as “I love the lines at the DMV.”

There was no irony. He genuinely seems to love the place, and people there seem to reciprocate. As we walked through the hallways to the cafeteria, Adam was stopped, waved at, teased, pulled into a hug, and grabbed by the hand half a dozen times—by a judge, a bailiff, a former client, and the checkout lady in the cafeteria line. Even the surly tough-guy deputies, who spend their days barking at the rabble being herded through the metal detectors, broke into smiles and shouted wisecracks. For his part, Adam worked the room as if he were a Catskills lounge act. “Good to see you!” he said. “Look how beautiful you look!” At one open doorway, he stopped in his tracks, as if paralyzed by the greatness of the man he had just come across: “One of the best, most finest judges in the country!”

Coming from almost any other lawyer, the act might have come off as slick, fake. But with the people in the halls—as with his juries—Adam reads like a favorite uncle. ”He’s good with people. He always has been,” says Ed Genson. “And people who are good with people are good in the courtroom. If you can walk into a room and 15 people there like you, and everyone relates to you and has good things to say about you, that’s not much different than being in a courtoom.”

Adam says he’s just being himself—confident, maybe a little cocky, in the courtroom but humble outside it. “Hey, these are my people,” he says, with a grand sweep of the arms. “The truth is, I’m scared that if I see somebody and don’t say hi, they’ll be like, Oh, he thinks he’s bigtime; he’s a jerk. That’s why I have to go out of the way.”

In other words, he’s being strategic. “I always feel you get a lot more with sugar than with salt,” he says. “A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows people.”

 

Adam’s warm feelings for a place of such cold comfort are unsurprising given that he was practically raised in the 80-year-old limestone building. “As soon as his mother got him potty trained, he started to go to court with me,” says Sam Adam Sr., who has been practicing criminal defense at the courthouse for nearly half a century. “After that, I couldn’t leave him home. He loved it.”

The courthouse became the boy’s de facto daycare. “I was fortunate because [in one judge’s court] there were some deputy sheriffs who were just as nice as they could be,” Adam Sr. recalls. “One of them in particular, a young guy, used to play checkers with him in the back. But as soon as the court started operating, [the boy] would come out and watch other lawyers try cases. I’m talking about when he was less than four.”

Adam Jr. shakes his head and laughs at the memory. “I literally had no choice but to become a lawyer,” he says.

The reality was more complicated. Adam admits he struggled for most of his young life with self-doubt and ambivalence over whether to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I have not had a greater friend than my dad,” he says. “What can you say about someone who comes from Connecticut, who grows up on a farm, leaves to go to Temple [University] in the middle of the hood, comes to Chicago, goes to law school to do criminal defense? On top of that, a white man who marries a black woman in Chicago in the sixties and all the societal challenges of that. What choice did I have but to try to be successful?”

Adam’s mother, Carolyn, says father and son were inseparable, watching The Honeymooners on the couch until they could recite lines from every episode. Still, Adam Jr. admits, “when I first started [as a lawyer], I wasn’t sure I could do it.”

Carolyn confirms her son’s early insecurity. “His first year, I think, he was afraid to go to court and even do a trial. . . . He was in his father’s shadow, in a sense. Sam Sr. is a hard act to follow.”

A lifelong friend who works as Adam’s law clerk, Jason Wallace, recalls that the father could apply a lot of pressure. “[Sam] played center on our peewee football team,” Wallace says. “And he got it harder than anyone. We could be beating someone 30 to nothing and his dad would be over there yelling, ‘What are you going to do [to your opponent], kiss him?’ We’d all be laughing about it later.”

In fairness, Sam Adam Sr. pushed all four of his kids. Every morning when he shaved, his children “would each have a stool with an empty razor, and they would all shave—even my daughter—with Sam while he taught them a vocabulary word,” Carolyn Adam recalls. On major holidays, Sam Sr. would gather the children and read the Declaration of Independence and drill them on the preamble to the Constitution.

Still, after the first three children made it clear they weren’t interested in becoming lawyers, he pinned his last hopes on his youngest. Taking his son aside after his graduation in 1991 from Lake Forest Academy—where he had just given the commencement speech as senior class president—the noted lawyer made his closing argument: “He said, ‘Give me seven years and you will thank me for it seven years after that,’ meaning seven years after college and law school,” Sam Adam Jr. recalls.

So Adam Jr. earned a law degree in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, and spent a few months in the district attorney’s office in Dane County, Wisconsin, but he quickly realized he wasn’t suited to prosecution. “I did my first jury trial, won, and felt like absolute crap,” he recalls. “The woman was speeding; there’s no doubt about it. But I felt so hypocritical. I knew I’d sped to get to court.”

He joined his father’s practice in 1999 and almost immediately found himself thrashing in the deep end. “My dad, unlike a lot of attorneys, allowed me to do everything, put me right in the first few cases,” Adam recalls. “He let me do closings on two murders in the first year. He said the only way you’re going to learn is to do it. Literally by my third or fourth year I’d had four or five murder cases on my own.”

Even so, insecurity gnawed at him. “I used to get up at two, three at night and worry,” Adam says. “I’d get nauseous even for a preliminary hearing—just all the self-doubt.” (His wife of four years, Chari Crumble-Adam, says that to this day, her husband cannot sleep the night before a trial starts. “He either stays up all night watching The Honeymooners or gets up and paces.”)

Eventually he began to rack up wins. His confidence grew. He developed some idiosyncratic ploys—for example, always wear a pink tie during opening statements. “Pink is a color that divides,” he says. “Manly men think, Oh, that’s a girly man. Women think, OK, he’s not hard; he’s not edged. I want that feeling at first from men, because after I talk, and they see my personality, they say, Ah, he’s just confident.” In time, he had to admit his father was right when he said that one day his son would thank him for going into the law. Sam Adam Jr. loved it.

Other defense attorneys at 26th and Cal began to catch wind of the kid with the theatrical flair, the one who couldn’t seem to lose. “I made it a point to go watch his trials, because what he could do in a courtroom was above and beyond,” says Brett Balmer, a lawyer in the Cook County public defender’s office. “He’s never boring to watch. He’s extremely charismatic. He’s absolutely like an actor onstage, but he’s also one of the best-prepared attorneys I’ve ever seen.”

“He’s a ham who loves—loves—being in the courtroom,” agrees Jason Wallace.

Adam cops to the charge. “I always wanted to be [at 26th and Cal] and perform. I got 12 people in a jury who can’t get away from me? Who have to sit there by court order and listen to me?” He’s laughing now. “That’s heaven.”

Best of all, he says, he does it his way, not his father’s. “In a lot of ways, my father and I are the same person. He’s my best friend. We have very similar voices, inflections, and intonations. But we have a much different style. My father is brilliant. I am not. My father is well thought out. I’m not. And he is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. My shtick is righteous anger—my father’s is humor.” Adam promises that his father is going to take a witness in the Blagojevich case—the son won’t say which one—and leave spectators in stitches. “I do not have that talent. That is not my shtick.”

Adam Jr.’s emotional style has its detractors. After the Kelly case, one blogger called Adam’s closing “a frantic, desperate performance that raised the question of whether he’d gone to law school or just watched Al Pacino in . . . And Justice for All. Others suggested that Adam won in spite of his theatrics—attributing the acquittal to a culture of celebrity worship.

Adam has heard the jabs for years: that he’s a clown, that he makes a fool of himself when he gets riled up, that his act belongs in a theatre or a church pulpit, not a courtroom. “You read the stuff,” he says. “The comments on the blogs are hilarious. One called me an ex-ghetto loudmouth. One called me a windbag. OK, well, I am loud. But you can’t let that get to you. You are who you are. Your style is your style. My dad always told me: ‘You can’t be me. Take what you can from me and be you.’ Whether it’s worked or not remains to be seen.”

There was little doubt it worked after the R. Kelly verdict. “For all its sideshows and celebrity intrigue, the R. Kelly trial may have trumpeted the coming of the Sam Adam Jr. era in local defense circles,” the Chicago Tribune stated. “While other attorneys on the high-profile case—including his father, Sam Adam Sr., and mentor Ed Genson—are considered heavy hitters of Chicago criminal law, it was the 35-year-old who walked away with the most home runs.”

 
 Adam (right) with Blagojevich after the former governor challenged U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to be “man enough” to face him in court
Adam (right) with Blagojevich after the former governor challenged U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to be “man enough” to face him in court &nsbp;Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

With the Blagojevich trial, however, Adam will be playing in a vastly different arena—the federal courthouse, typically more reserved, more cerebral, more disciplined. It’s unlikely, for example, that he will be able to get away with the kind of flame-throwing rhetoric and preacherly histrionics that worked so well in the R. Kelly case.

That doesn’t necessarily mean his style won’t be effective. “I do think there are significant differences between how cases are tried in the state court system in Cook County and the federal court system in Chicago,” says the former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins. “State courts are a grittier place, and I think there’s an expectation that people raise their voices more; they get sort of down and dirty more, that there’s more hand-to-hand combat. I do think the federal courtrooms are a little more regal. There’s more majesty to them. There is something that holds you back. It’s like being a guest in someone else’s house—you act differently. What is common is a lawyer’s ability to connect with their audience, and I’m not sure I would say that flamboyance under any circumstances is a bad thing or ineffective in a federal court.”

Len Goodman, a veteran defense lawyer who has tried numerous cases in both state and federal courts, says Adam would be wrong to try to change. “If your style is to be flamboyant, then you have to be who you are. Juries appreciate lawyers who are authentic and have passion.”

The defense team will be going up against a formidable team of prosecutors assembled by Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney. But Goodman thinks that may present an opportunity for the defense: “Federal prosecutors are good, but they’re used to crushing people. The people who fight back tend to have success.”

Adam’s father—he and Sorosky are officially the lead attorneys for the defense—insists his son is ready for the fight. “I can tell you this: He will not look silly for lack of preparation,” Adam Sr. says. “He eats this, sleeps it, talks about it all the time. He and us and Blagojevich are spending four days a week going over everything.” (And doing so at a substantial discount. The U.S. district court judge hearing the case, James Zagel, ruled that defense team lawyers will be paid $110 an hour—a far cry from the $500 or more an hour that they usually command. The money is coming from a campaign fund of the unemployed governor, who says he cannot otherwise pay for his defense. When that fund runs out, as it most likely will, taxpayers will pick up the rest of the tab.)

But what about outside the court? Is it wise for Adam Jr. and his client to be so visible and so voluble? “[Adam] is doing things that are absolutely unheard of in a public corruption case,” says Collins. “The first rule that most lawyers have for their clients is ‘Keep your mouth shut.’ In this case, it’s as if [Blagojevich is] being told to keep his mouth open as much as he can.”

Collins adds: “There are people who would say it’s stupid—I think it’s definitely unconventional—but I have little doubt that it’s being done very strategically.”

Adam Jr. confirms as much. You can light the fuse on a loose cannon “if you have a purpose,” he says. “I’m loud. But if you notice, you never saw me out there [doing interviews] during the R. Kelly case. Now if this was the Drew Peterson case, where you’re accused of drowning your ex-wife and another wife goes missing, I don’t know if you really want to take that strategy. With Blagojevich, no one is going to walk in there and be so utterly offended just by the alleged crime itself.”

Adam is betting on what might be termed the blather defense: By letting the public see firsthand that Blagojevich apparently says whatever comes into his head, Adam and his team can argue that the things the ex-governor says on the tape are little more than his typical claptrap and attempts to impress people—that the real crooks were those around him. “I think the jury will see that [Blagojevich] surrounded himself with people who would make him feel OK—to feed his need for acceptance,” Adam says. “That’s the honest-to-God truth. They saw it, and they took advantage of him.”

It’s a risky strategy—and one insider told me that it caused Ed Genson, Blagojevich’s initial lead attorney, to quit the defense team. (Adam Jr. says that his mentor chose to step down over “a difference in vision” with Adam Sr.)

In any case, Adam says, reining in Blagojevich would never work. “I can’t,” he says flatly one day, talking over a turkey club at a diner. “But you’re going to see when he testifies. He’s truly funny—totally self-absorbed but truly funny. He’s also one of the most insecure people I’ve ever met. It’s such a strange dynamic.”

Adam warms to the idea, imagining ways he might play up the insecurity theory. For instance, “I gotta communicate the Eastern European part of this,” he says. What he means is that Blagojevich is of Eastern European descent, and for centuries Eastern Europeans lived under repressive governments that told their citizens they were unworthy. Those feelings “didn’t just stop because somebody came to America. Those feelings are impressed in him.”

As he talks, Adam gets worked up. His voice grows loud; he stabs the air and bangs the table, causing a coffee cup to clatter in its saucer. A couple in the next booth cast nervous glances, but Adam doesn’t notice. He’s got the floor now, and the slow smolder is starting to build. “He should have never done that,” Adam growls of Patrick Fitzgerald and the press conference at which the U.S. attorney said Blagojevich’s actions “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”

“Bad form,” he huffs. “The fact that he arrested him on TV, that was enough. You kick a guy when he’s down, you better make sure you knock him out.” Adam is getting it now, the Feeling, that adrenaline rush of indignation. It pours forth in a tumbling flood, gushes in a righteous wave. “Blagojevich is not a criminal,” he thunders. “I’ve had some criminals, and he is not a criminal!”

Sam Adam Jr. knows this feeling, and he embraces it, even here in a diner, shtick or no.

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