In a last plea for mercy, Rod Blagojevich tried a tactic he never has before: an apology.
The disgraced former Illinois governor told a judge Wednesday that he made “terrible mistakes” and acknowledged that he broke the law when he tried to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
After protesting his innocence for years, Blagojevich's plea on the second day of his sentencing hearing came as he hopes to avoid a prison term of up to 20 years. Judge James Zagel was expected to deliver his sentence Wednesday.
“I'm here convicted of crimes … ,” Blagojevich said, “and I am accepting of it, I acknowledge it and I of course am unbelievably sorry for it.”
While he apologized in the 19-minute speech that he delivered without paper in front of him, Blagojevich still said he did not know he was breaking the law. He told Zagel that he thought what he was doing was “permissible,” but that he was mistaken, and he “never set out to break the law.”
“I caused it all, I'm not blaming anybody. I was the governor and I should have known better, and I am just so incredibly sorry.”
Blagojevich leaned in to the hefty oak podium just feet in front of the judge and gripped both sides as he spoke in a low, measured voice. Zagel leaned forward with his hands on his chin, peering intently at Blagojevich.
As he had approached the podium, Blagojevich tugged nervously at his tie before turning to his wife and grabbing her hand.
He made a special plea on behalf of his family, conceding that he had let them down, destroying the innocence of his two daughters.
In the last moments of his plea for mercy from Judge James Zagel, Blagojevich apologized for what his daughter's lives have become — how they will carry with them every day the understanding that their father is a convicted felon.
“My life is ruined, at least now. … My political career is over, I can't be a lawyer anymore, we can't afford the home we live in, we're trying to sell it,” he said.
“I realize that the things I thought were permissible, the jury has made abundantly clear were not,” he said, adding, “Because of all that I have jeopardized my ability to protect my children.”
Prosecutors made their arguments earlier Wednesday about why they think the 54-year-old should be imprisoned for up to 20 years on his multiple corruption counts, saying he was “incredibly manipulative” and knew he was breaking the law when he tried to sell the Senate seat and shake down people and a children's hospital for money.
A day after Blagojevich's attorneys acknowledged their client broke the law but also tried to paint him as a devoted father and caring governor who tried to help people, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar countered by saying that Blagojevich acted only for himself.
Schar disputed the defense argument that Blagojevich's crimes were not all that serious, saying actions like shaking down a children's hospital for funding for a month harmed sick children and trying to auction off the senate seat damaged public faith in government.
Nearly three years to the day since Blagojevich's arrest while still in office, the first day of the sentencing hearing Tuesday featured an admission by Blagojevich's attorneys that he was, in fact, guilty of public corruption. For years, the former governor and his team had strenuously avoided acknowledging that.
The defense admission of guilt came as something of a surprise — just days after defense filings declared Blagojevich's innocence.
But earlier Tuesday, Zagel seemed to signal he may be ready to impose a stiff prison sentence, telling the courtroom he thought Blagojevich lied when he testified on the stand at his retrial that he never sought to sell or trade the Senate seat.
While attorney Sheldon Sorosky told Zagel on Tuesday that Blagojevich committed the crimes, he insisted that none justified anywhere close to the 15- to 20-year prison term prosecutors wanted.
Otherwise known for his jocular personality, the impeached governor-turned-reality TV star cut a somber figure Tuesday. He pulled nervously at his fingers as attorneys spoke, pausing occasionally to sip on a plastic bottle of Cherry Coke.
In an emotional few minutes before proceedings ended Tuesday, defense attorney Aaron Goldstein said locking Blagojevich up for a long time would devastate his wife and two school-age daughters.
When Goldstein began reading a letter from Blagojevich's oldest daughter, 15-year-old Amy, asking the judge not to lock her father up, Blagojevich seemed to fight to maintain his composure, biting on his lip.
In another letter, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, asked Zagel to “please be merciful.” She began sobbing when Goldstein played a recording of a giddy Blagojevich calling his younger daughter, who is now 8, and putting on a baby voice, saying “Hey Annie!”
Prosecutors have said Blagojevich hasn't previously displayed any remorse and has thumbed his nose at the justice system. But Blagojevich's attorneys said he has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin — proposing a term of no more than a few years.
Blagojevich's sentencing comes just days before his 55th birthday and three years to the week of his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest. The jury deadlocked in his first trial, agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery.
Among the court attendees in court Tuesday were more than a dozen jurors from both of Blagojevich's trials, including both foremen. Several said they would attend Wednesday also.
After sentencing, Zagel will likely give Blagojevich at least weeks before he must report to prison. Once there, the man heard scoffing on FBI wiretaps about earning a low six-figure salary would have to take a prison job — possibly scrubbing toilets — at just 12 cents an hour.
Michael Tarm can be reached at www.twitter.com/mtarm