A federal judge delivered a tongue-lashing Monday to Rod Blagojevich's legal team, repeatedly calling its motion alleging potential juror misconduct "harebrained" and threatening to hold one of the attorneys in contempt of court.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel went so far as to suggest the attorney write a letter of apology to the juror who was targeted in the filing. But the juror, Connie Wilson, the forewoman in the convicted former governor's second trial, said later she didn't think that was necessary.
Blagojevich's legal team wanted a new trial if the judge ruled that jury rules were broken. His lawyers were concerned that Wilson may have violated the judge's instructions by speaking to Aurora high school students last week and possibly displaying a confidential questionnaire used in picking her for the jury.
But Wilson said the documents she discussed were actually blank forms sent to her by court officials.
"I called a (jury office) clerk … about the packets that they send out to government and civics teachers," Wilson said in a phone interview, "and he emailed me the blank (forms) that everyone gets."
Earlier Monday, the attorney who was lambasted by Zagel defended the motion.
"We were just trying to find out if (Wilson) had (the questionnaire) and how she got it," said Lauren Kaeseberg, who submitted the motion under her name after consulting with Blagojevich's three other lawyers. "I'm proud of the work that I've done on this case, and I really do stand by the motion."
But Zagel blasted Kaeseberg for making assumptions that unnecessarily put Wilson in an uncomfortable position and asked that the lawyer submit a written explanation that detailed the reasoning behind the motion. He also advised her to consider hiring her own attorney.
"This motion was prepared without any adequate forethought," Zagel said.
"It smacks a little of retaliatory (action against) a juror," he added later.
Veteran lawyers said the severity of Zagel's rebuke was unusual, but the dispute was a collision of different motives.
"Judges are very protective of their jurors," said attorney Joel Bertocchi, who specializes in appeals. "(But) the defense attorney's job is to try to locate and make a record on any issues that may have an impact on their client."
The legal experts said it would have been extremely unlikely for Blagojevich to win a new trial even if Wilson had actually taken a questionnaire.
"She already knows what her answers to the questionnaire were, so what is the prejudice of her having a copy of her own answers?" said criminal-defense attorney Steven Greenberg.
Blagojevich's legal team has long accused Zagel of bias and is likely to make that a key part of its appeal of Blagojevich's conviction. Earlier this month, the judge sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years in prison, one of the toughest prison terms ever given for a public corruption case in Chicago. He is to surrender March 15.
Wilson said she found out about the defense's motion Saturday from her sister-in-law, who called to tell her that it was all over the news. On Sunday, Wilson said, reporters waited outside her home as she and her family threw their annual Christmas party.
"It was a little disconcerting," Wilson said. "We've been so careful about everything we say and everything we talk about as jurors to make sure we are always appropriate."
Still, Wilson didn't fault the defense for trying to pursue the issue after news reports about her appearance at the high school.
As Blagojevich's legal team left the federal courthouse, reporters asked about Zagel's criticism of their motion as being "harebrained." The lead attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, smiled and replied, "I don't know, I don't have a lot of hair."
"And I don't have a brain," quipped Aaron Goldstein, another of the attorneys.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun