By several accounts, Blago’s defense lawyers have come off looking like rookies—often tutored by U.S. District Judge James Zagel in a manner reminiscent of a an impatient and bored professor. (Don’t start a question with “so,” etc.)
That goes for Sam Adam, father and son; for Blago’s old friend and former employer Sheldon Sorosky; and for Aaron Goldstein, the youngest of the group at 35. If Zagel gave Goldstein a hard time—“Ask something appropriate,” Zagel scolded; another time: “Would you spare us the campaign speech until afterwards?”—the press has been kinder. The Sun-Times described the lawyer’s recent cross-examination as “fiery.” While questioning the feds’ witness, FBI special agent Dan Cain, Goldstein raised the key question: “Did one penny go to the personal account of Rod Blagojevich?” Cain, who led the investigation of Blago, replied, “I didn’t analyze those details.”
Goldstein also forced prosecution witness Gerald Krozel to admit that he had lied to the FBI agent who showed up at his house on the morning Blago was arrested. (The feds were trying to establish that Blago had pressured Krozel, then chairman of the American Concrete Pavement Association, to raise campaign cash in return for a $6 billion tollway project.)
In a telephone interview after court adjourned on Thursday, I asked Goldstein if he thinks Judge Zagel has been harsh on him and his colleagues. Goldstein just said Zagel was “a fine judge.”
DePaul University College of Law Professor Leonard Cavise, who teaches courses in Criminal Procedure and Evidence, said in a telephone interview that Zagel is not treating the defense lawyers well. “He has always been a prosecution-oriented judge,” Cavise said. He speculated that Zagel does not like the defense lawyers’ “26th and California style,” and that the judge “prefers federal style, which is more genteel.”
If things go badly for Blago, could Zagel’s actions constitute grounds for reversal? Yes, said Cavise, quickly adding, “Is it likely? No—there would have to be an error so serious that it probably affected the verdict.” Zagel is “too smart a guy” to do that, Cavise said.
A little more on Goldstein: He told me that he grew up in the city, attended Lane Tech High School, and went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He graduated from law school at the University of Iowa in 2000, passed the bar that same year, and spent the next six and a half years as a Cook County public defender.
While defending people charged with felonies ranging from sexual assault to drug trafficking to murder, Goldstein often worked at the criminal court at 26th and California, where he got to know Sam Adam Jr. When Goldstein went into private practice, he rented space in the Adams’ offices on South Ellis Avenue. On his website, Goldstein urges, “CALL NOW for a FREE consultation,” and warns that “sometimes, time is of the essence and you need a lawyer at the police station.” His pre-Blago clients were people accused of crimes ranging from DUI to murder. A year ago, Adam Jr. asked Goldstein to join the Blago defense.
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Ever wonder who’s paying Blago’s defense team? By order of Judge Zagel, the defense lawyers are making $110 an hour—a rate that is considerably lower than many firms bill for paralegals. The money is coming from the Friends of Blagojevich Campaign Fund, which had $2.8 million at the time Blago was arrested. By April, it was down by half to $1.4 million, and that was before the trial started in June. Some experts have predicted that the campaign fund will soon be drained and that the taxpayers will get stuck picking up the slack.
During the trial of former Governor George Ryan, Loop law firm Winston & Strawn provided an estimated $20 million of pro bono legal services to defend him. The impetus behind that was Jim Thompson, the firm’s former chairman and the state’s former governor. While Ryan’s lawyers may have had much loftier legal pedigrees than Blago’s, Ryan lost at trial and remains in prison today.
Photograph: AAron Goldstein's Website