Holdout juror airs her side of the story

Defends role in Blagojevich case

JoAnn Chiakulas said she thought Rod Blagojevich was “just rambling’’ on the FBI wiretap recordings. Blagojevich faces a retrial. JoAnn Chiakulas said she thought Rod Blagojevich was “just rambling’’ on the FBI wiretap recordings. Blagojevich faces a retrial. (M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)
By Michael Tarm and Don Babwin
Associated Press / August 28, 2010

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CHICAGO — As attorneys and defendants scanned jurors faces for favorable signs during Rod Blagojevich’s corruption trial, most couldn’t get a read on the pokerfaced grandmother at the far end of the jury box taking meticulous notes.

JoAnn Chiakulas, a retired state employee, turned out to be the lone holdout standing in the way of a conviction of the ousted Illinois governor on charges he tried to sell President Obama’s old Senate seat.

Nine days after jurors deadlocked on all but one charge against Blagojevich, Chiakulas publicly defended her resolve for the first time in an interview published yesterday by the Chicago Tribune, filling out a picture of tense juror deliberations and feeding debate about her role.

Chiakulas, 67, stood by her vote, saying she found Blagojevich’s statements captured on FBI wiretap recordings so disorganized and scattered that his actions did not amount to a criminal conspiracy.

“I thought he was just rambling,’’ she told the Tribune. “I could never live with myself if I went along with the rest of the jury.’’

Chiakulas, who had refused to respond to an onslaught of media requests, answered some but not all of the conjecture about her that arose after the verdict — from what her motives were to whether her past work as a state bureaucrat somehow colored how she saw actions that Blagojevich dismissed as routine political “horsetrading.’’

Chiakulas told the Tribune she had no prior bias toward Blagojevich, and other jurors said they had no reason to believe she wasn’t deliberating in good faith. Jury consultants and attorneys said her prior work for the state could have helped or hurt the defense. “Blagojevich really wasn’t that popular with state employees. Maybe that’s why prosecutors wanted to keep her [during jury selection],’’ said Sheldon Sorosky, one of Blagojevich’s defense attorneys.

The jury in the case last week deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts against Blagojevich, convicting him only of lying to the FBI, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years. On Thursday, Judge James Zagel said Blagojevich’s retrial would start the week of Jan. 4, after prosecutors dropped charges against the former governor’s brother and codefendant, Robert Blagojevich.

At the first trial, jurors deliberated for 14 days before the judge declared a mistrial on those 23 charges. The jurors said they had deadlocked 11-1 in favor of guilty on the more serious allegations regarding the Senate seat.

Chiakulas, a resident of the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, worked from 1990 to 2000 as an employee of the state Department of Public Health, where she ran a minority affairs program. She also worked for the Chicago Urban League.

In the Tribune interview, Chiakulas said she decided the prosecution had simply not proven its case, and that she had a responsibility to follow her conscience. She said she did not believe Blagojevich committed a crime with regards to Obama’s vacated Senate seat, but stressed that she did not necessarily find him innocent.

She called him “narcissistic’’ and said she had ignored his many media appearances, which she called “his shenanigans.’’

Chiakulas said she also became concerned because some key witnesses against Blagojevich had cut deals with prosecutors before testifying.

“Some people in [the jury room] only saw black and white,’’ Chiakulas said. “I think I saw, in the transcripts and in the testimony, shades of gray. To me, that means reasonable doubt.’’ top stories on Twitter

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