Blagojevich trial holdout juror breaks her silence

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 28, 2010

CHICAGO (AP) — As attorneys and defendants scanned jurors’ faces for favorable signs during ex-Illinois Gov. 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 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 Friday by the Chicago Tribune, filling out a picture of tense juror deliberations and feeding debate about her role.

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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 including several from The Associated Press, 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 either 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 Blagojevich 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 co-defendant, 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 previously worked for the Chicago Urban League, where she oversaw a youth counseling program called the Young Parents Center.

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.’’

She acknowledged tensions in the jury room as she held her ground, with other jurors coming at her with different arguments and one recalling how it brought tears to her eyes. Being the holdout caused her a great deal of stress, Chiakulas said, describing how she suffered headaches and stomach pains.

‘‘I can’t explain how badly I felt,’’ she said. ‘‘I didn’t sleep at night. I thought about it on the train. I wanted to make sure my reasonable doubt was reasonable.’’

Chiakulas came across as highly intelligent, the foreman for the jury, James Matsumoto, said on Friday. He said he didn’t think politics influenced how she assessed the evidence, but that her familiarity with politicians through her state work may well have led to her refrain that Blagojevich was ‘‘only talking.’’

‘‘She would say, ’What I hear he’s doing is he is just being a politician,’’’ Matsumoto recalled. ‘‘In her job, she encountered many politicians and so she felt she would know more about the way they spoke.’’

But John Lumpkin, who hired Chiakulas when he was director of the Illinois Department of Public Health under former Gov. James Thompson, a Republican, said it didn’t necessarily follow.

‘‘I think it all depends on your experience, whether or not you ran into that,’’ he said, adding that he didn’t hear that kind of talk when he led the agency.

Lumpkin said he wasn’t surprised to learn that Chiakulas was the holdout juror. ‘‘She would stand up for what she believed in,’’ he said.

During the nine days that Chiakulas remained silent after the verdict, her name and biographical details circulated on the Web. Among the details uncovered was that her politically active former husband had given small donations to Blagojevich and his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, nearly a decade ago, but she told the Tribune that was long after the two were divorced.

Legal experts disagreed on whether Chiakulas’ profile would make her someone either the defense or prosecution would have wanted to eliminate from the jury pool.

During the trial, Chiakulas appeared attentive if deadly serious and fastidious, often appearing in court in a dress while most jurors wore jeans. When wiretap recordings were played, she followed written transcripts in a black binder that lay across her lap.

On Friday, after declining to respond to repeated interview requests, Chiakulas picked up her telephone when an Associated Press reporter called. But she declined to speak in detail.

‘‘I am exhausted,’’ she said. ‘‘I’ve had a camera truck outside since five this morning.’’