Blagojevich: Judge Refuses to Lower Sentence

The re-sentencing for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was held today in Chicago. He appeared by video from the Federal Prison Camp in Englewood where he is serving a 14 year sentence. The resentencing was the result of the appeals court vacating five of the most serious counts against him: the ones that pertained to the alleged "sale" of the Senate seat.

The judge refused to impose a lesser sentence. [More...]

Since the guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, the Judge had a lot of options. Blagojevich's lawyer today asked for a reduction to five years.

Yesterday I read the government and defense filings regarding the re-sentencing, including the more than 100 inmate letters filed on his behalf (available here, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.) Seriously, in what other case would 100 fellow inmates individually hand write or type letters to a judge asking that a fellow inmate receive leniency? The camp has a population of 182. More than half of them wrote letters.

What was so impressive was that the letters came from inmates who had committed all kinds of crimes, young and old, from all parts of the country and beyond. Some were Spanish speakers. Some were physically disabled. Some had short sentences, others were serving 20 to 30 years. Some were at the beginning and some were at the end of their time. Even his former cellmates, now at other prisons or released wrote letters.

The letters had a consistent theme: Blagojevich is inspirational, a great teacher (he teaches history, GED classes and English as a second language), his classes are so interesting they are often standing room only, he teaches them how to improve their lives, he makes no distinction between inmates based on type of crime or race, he always asks if he can be of assistance (he works in the law library), he writes letters to inmates families for them, helps them with legal filings, conducts mock job interviews with those about to be released, attends the Scriptures reading every night, sings in a jailhouse band, runs and lifts weights every day, cools tensions among inmates when they arise, always has an open door and makes time for those feeling down or seeking advice. He has encouraged them not to be bitter at the Government, has praised our judicial system, and on and on. All of the letters speak to his dedication to his family. Some provide personal examples of how Blagojevich made a difference not just in their lives, but their families' lives.

Many of the letters say they had pre-judged him from the media reports and are pleased to say they were wrong. He has no attitude, no "hustle", is humble, always cheerful and willing to help others. He takes nothing in return for his help, which they say is almost unheard of in prisons.

You may not have time to read all 141 pages of the letters, but I hope you will read as many as you can. Even if you aren't that interested in Rod Blagojevich, the letters are a rare glimpse into how inmates view themselves. The range of crimes of which they were convicted and how they describe their crimes and backgrounds are really interesting.

Aside from how devastated Blagojevich and his family are at the judge's refusal to credit him with his amazing (and there is no other word for it) work at the prison helping others, the judge's decision sends a hugely negative signal to the hundred inmates who wrote him on Blago's behalf. They now know that rehabilitation and turning one's life around in prison by doing good deeds there every day makes no difference at all. The judge just threw the incentive for every inmate to work hard in prison and become a better person out the window. If someone they all admire and look up to and believe doesn't even belong in prison can't get a break when a window opens up for a lesser sentence, what chance do they have?

I agree with Patti Blagovevich: the judge's ruling was ""unusually cruel and heartless and unfair." I'll add it was tone-deaf. Deterrence through prison sentences should be a two way street. Just as it can send a message that certain behavior will have negative consequences, like a long prison term, it should be able to convey the message that when you do good in prison and have a positive impact on the lives of everyone around you, there will be recognition of your accomplishments. Rod Blagojevich's rehabilitation in prison, according to more than 100 of the 182 inmates serving time with him, has been extraordinary.

The Supreme Court in 2011 ruled in Pepper v. U.S. that when a defendant's sentence has been set aside on appeal, a district court at resentencing can consider evidence of the defendant's post-sentencing rehabilitation as supporting a downward variance from the advisory guidelines.

I think Blagojevich's rehabilitation, in conjunction with the most serious charges against him having been dismissed by the Government after the appeals court ruled convictions on those counts were invalid, warranted a substantially lesser sentence.

The appeals court, in tossing convictions on those counts, stated:

The district court sentenced Blagojevich to 168 months’ imprisonment on the counts that authorize 20 year maximum terms, and lesser terms on all other counts. All sentences run concurrently, so the total is 168 months.

....It is not possible to call 168 months unlawfully high for Blagojevich’s crimes, but the district judge should consider on remand whether it is the most appropriate sentence. The convictions on Counts 5, 6, 21, 22, and 23 are vacated; the remaining convictions are affirmed. The sentence is vacated, and the case is remanded for retrial on the vacated counts. ... If the prosecutor elects to drop these charges, then the district court should proceed directly to resentencing. Because we have affirmed the convictions on most counts and concluded that the advisory sentencing range lies above 168 months, Blagojevich is not entitled to be released pending these further proceedings

28% of the counts carrying 20 year sentences were thrown out by the appeals court. Since the guidelines are not mandatory, I think the judge should have reduced his 14 year sentence by 28%, and then varied downward further for his rehabilitation and good deeds in prison.

Patti Blagojevich also wrote a letter. She said the family speaks to him every night and they've visited him more than 20 times. This seems to correspond with the inmates' letters, many of whom wrote about meeting the family in the visiting room.

According the Chicago Sun Times,

Zagel indicated at the hearing he was unmoved by the dozens of letters that fellow prisoners had written on Blagojevich’s behalf, singing his praises. Zagel didn’t dispute that Blagojevich is a model prisoner. “But they knew him from inside the prison,” Zagel said of the other prisoners. “They don’t know him.”

Many of the inmate letters pointed out that it is impossible to hide your true character in a prison setting, especially a small one where you encounter other inmates dozens of times a day. That Judge Zagel would think he has a better handle on Blagojevich's true character than the more than 100 inmates who have spent every day with him over the past four years, is both demeaning to the inmates and preposterous to me.

Count me among those who are "dumbfounded and flabbergasted" by the court's ruling.

Blagojevich's lawyer says an appeal is likely.

All of Talkleft's coverage of Blagojevich's first and second trials and sentencing are available here.

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  • Display: Sort:
    I agree with TL that the sentence in Blago's case (5.00 / 3) (#4)
    by Peter G on Tue Aug 09, 2016 at 04:51:53 PM EST
    was unreasonable when imposed, and is now even more unreasonable. The judge is a 75-year old Reagan appointee, whose entire prior career was as a prosecutor and police commissioner. The kinds of lawyers (and kinds of people) appointed to be judges by a given President makes a difference.

    Another victory for the tough on crime crowd (none / 0) (#1)
    by McBain on Tue Aug 09, 2016 at 03:33:50 PM EST
    This judge will probably face a little bit of criticism but nowhere near what the judge in the Stanford swimmer, sexual assault case faced because he appeared to be soft on crime.  There were actually petitions to have that guy removed.  

    I agree, it sends the wrong message. Why bother being a good inmate?  

    Why bother? (none / 0) (#8)
    by Mr Natural on Thu Aug 11, 2016 at 09:30:56 AM EST
    Because if you aren't the sociopaths who run the B.O.P. consign you to one of America's taxpayer funded SuperHells.

    That seems grossly unfair that he can in effect (none / 0) (#2)
    by ruffian on Tue Aug 09, 2016 at 03:42:50 PM EST
    still be doing time for the vacated convictions.

    Also agree with your points regarding rehabilitation - what good does it do to be a model prisoner?

    He has apparently remained charismatic. (none / 0) (#3)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 09, 2016 at 04:13:01 PM EST
    Rod Blagojevich is really (none / 0) (#5)
    by KeysDan on Tue Aug 09, 2016 at 05:18:54 PM EST
    a tragic case. Such a corrupt elected official, a real double identity.  As a US congressman he was considered a progressive, and as governor proposed and signed many progressive bills, including major increases in funding for education, death penalty reform (continued George Ryan' moratorium), a state-wide smoking ban, expanded health care, in 2005, prohibited discrimination in housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation, and permitted all over 60 years of age to ride free on public transportation.  And, he put in an ethics reform bill, but insufficient to protect himself from himself.

    It's Illinois, Dan. (none / 0) (#6)
    by Donald from Hawaii on Tue Aug 09, 2016 at 06:28:50 PM EST
    Let's please remember that four of the state's previous nine governors were eventually convicted of corruption and malfeasance, and would up serving time in prison as a result. Is there any other state that has a comparably dubious track record for that particular office? I don't think so.

    Rod Blagojevich's misfortune is that he so happened to be the most recent one, and his public transgressions came at a time when public tolerance among Illinois residents for political corruption has cleared worn thin.

    Speaking for myself only, while I empathize with the guy's plight and feel his sentence to be clearly excessive, I also see public corruption as perhaps the most intractable and corrosive issue which confronts us as a society. If we don't stand for something, we'll only ensure that we'll eventually fall for anything.

    While we can and should advocate for leniency, which seems entirely proper in this instance, let's also please not minimize the crimes for which he still stands convicted, because he's not the victim here. Rather, the victims would be his constituents who twice entrusted him with the state's highest office, only to be once again betrayed as they had before by several of his predecessors.

    That Blago finds himself in this present predicament is due entirely to some remarkably poor personal choices he made in his capacity as governor, in which his own overarching ambition overruled his common sense (provided he had any in the first place), and led him to crassly exploit his office for personal gain.



    Trump's way (none / 0) (#7)
    by banshee on Wed Aug 10, 2016 at 08:57:16 AM EST
    if Trump wins, then this Blago should be let go.  You see Blago was just joking like Trump's 2nd Amendment joke.   Just a joke.