The Idiot Defense

As of this writing, after 11 days of deliberations the federal jury in former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s trial has reached a verdict on only two counts out of 24 total charges and is deadlocked on others. U.S. District Judge James Zagel has instructed the jury to keep trying.

I’ve served on two juries, both of which ended up hung. If my experience is any indication, two verdicts is all this jury will produce. If my prediction turns out to be true, then Blagojevich’s unique defense strategy will turn out to be at least partially successful.

Rod-blagojevich-celebrity-apprentice If you ever find yourself charged with a couple dozen federal crimes–you never know–you should immediately get yourself on TV and start acting like a complete idiot. Make sure your spouse does the same. Then have your defense lawyer try to convince the jury that you’re not really a foul-mouthed, greedy, and venal weirdo, as audio tapes and eyewitnesses have testified. Rather, tell the jury that you’re simply too stupid to realize it’s wrong to shake down the President of the United States for a Senate seat. So far, at least, the idiot defense seems to be working for Blagojevich.

Blagojevich’s legal troubles have fascinated Illinoisans ever since the governor was hauled away in handcuffs from his house, like a Mafia don, in December 2008. No one outside the state would care–after all, charging the sitting governor with federal crimes is becoming routine in Illinois–except for the spectacle Blagojevich managed to make of himself by appearing on The Apprentice and every other media outlet that would let him into its soundstage. Blagojevich’s wife Patti did the same. The Blagojevichs became a laughing stock across the country.

Blagojevich is famous for modeling himself after Elvis Presley and John Wayne. But in his public relations campaign he’s become Iago to his own Othello. Iago was an anti-therapist, disintegrating Othello’s personality instead of re-integrating it, as a therapist would normally do. Similarly, Blagojevich has used the media to disintegrate the public’s perception of him. As Charles Lipson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune,

I think his goal is to turn [the trial] into a joke. I think they’re trying to make him out like Bugs Bunny, and [his defense team is] assuming the jury will be Elmer Fudd. Bugs is always playing tricks on Elmer, but he’s not truly malicious, he’s just kind of a trickster. I think that’s how Rod is trying to play himself. I think he’s got a strategy – I’m a lovable rogue.

All Blagojevich needs to do is plant a seed of doubt in the jury’s mind, and after a long spell in a cramped, hot deliberation room and some jury members will start to consider that doubt as reasonable. Believe me, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it happen, twice.

Blagojevich is not off the hook by any means. A conviction on one count and he’s going to prison. So far, though, he’s still whispering in the ears of the jurors, “I haven’t betrayed the trust of the people of Illinois. I’m just an idiot.”

Update, 8/17: This afternoon the jury came back with a verdict on a single count: lying to the FBI. They were deadlocked on the other 23 counts. Procedures for a retrial have already started.



  1. Isn’t the problem rather that while the jury has to confine its debate to the context of the law, out there in the real, compassionate world, the mass media assists the man in his re-casting of himself in the way we all occasionally albeit secretly desire to be made over?
    Ultimately, the jury may look at itself philosophically and in the larger context and actually begin to undermine its own efforts which it may perceive as petty minded victimisation. Upholding the law may seem devilishly futile, a storm in a teacup, or burning Rome down for a … – what was it again? – when it is actually a nobler thing to do to transform oneself into a new person.
    My point is (I think), that it does not matter what image the Iago presents, it is always going to seem more like the ideal free spirited image of man than the self perception of the jury member, again created by Iago, as some sort of collaborator.


  2. I wrote this entry based on my experiences on juries–two trials, two hung juries. In both instances I entered deliberations convinced of the guilt of the defendant. The majority of other jurors felt the same way. However, I’ve seen how a small minority, two or three people (but not one), can derail deliberations for the most trivial reasons. If someone doesn’t believe the testimony of police under any circumstances, for instance, then conviction is impossible. The particulars of the case are erased by someone’s muddled impressions garnered from television and conversations with friends. The “reasonable doubt” clause opens up all kinds of unreasonable positions.
    Rod Blagojevich’s case, admittedly, is complex. He was a horrible public servant–lazy, irresponsible, greedy, narcissistic. He talked a lot about some blatantly illegal things, but, characteristically, none of those plots ever came to fruition, not because of pangs of conscience, but because they were such absurd propositions that no one else would enable them. No one would help him in his schemes because he was an idiot. If he’d been more cunning, he’d had been more successful and therefore more obviously guilty. In his first trial (there will be another), he’s placed that same idiocy at the core of his defense. All he needs is another idiot in the jury box to buy it.


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