CHICAGO (AP) — Jurors weighing the evidence against Rod Blagojevich were so determined to avoid acrimony they adopted a communication technique suggested by a grade-school teacher on the panel and elected a retired choir director as forewoman who committed to ensuring harmony.
Even so, long deliberations in a cramped jury room trying to understand legalese and listening to FBI wiretaps left jurors drained, forewoman Connie Wilson and other jurors said Tuesday, a day after they convicted Blagojevich on most of the charges.
"Sleepless nights were part of the process," Wilson, 56, said from her home in suburban Naperville. "You might wake wondering — are you doing all this right?"
The group filed back into court Monday to deliver guilty verdicts on 17 of 20 counts, including all charges related to allegations that Blagojevich sought to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. At Blagojevich's first trial last year, jurors deadlocked on 23 of 24 charges, with a lone holdout preventing convictions on the Senate seat charges.
Retrial jurors sought to avoid pitting one juror against the majority by adopting a "fist-to-five" method used by the teacher in her school: During votes on a charge, jurors held out a clenched fist if they thought Blagojevich was not guilty or extend five fingers if fully convinced he was guilty; those not fully convinced would hold out one to four fingers — the fewer fingers, the more doubts.
"It didn't put people on the line, but let everyone know that some people still had questions, and so we'd go back and look at the evidence again," Wilson said.
No single juror ever consistently favored acquittal and had to be wooed back, added Wilson. Those who might have doubts on one count might well be with the majority on the next, she said.
And no jurors were ever cocksure.
"Nobody just went into the jury room and said, 'He's guilty, that's that,'" she said.
Jurors went through each of the overriding accusations, starting first with the Senate allegation, Wilson said.
"People thought that was the clearest," said Wilson.
The hardest one to sort through, she said, was the claim that Blagojevich wanted to withhold a $2 million grant to a school in then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel's district until Emanuel's Hollywood agent brother held a fundraiser for Blagojevich; the money was eventually released and no fundraiser was held.
It was that and another allegation that Blagojevich tried to shake down a road-building executive that consumed the last few days of deliberations, Wilson said. Jurors had agreed on 18 counts by the end of last week — including 17 guilty verdicts and the one not guilty — but wanted to take the weekend to see if any positions might change on the school-related count. They didn't.
Some jurors have said they found Blagojevich personable, and that he may have helped his cause in a few places. Juror Jessica Hubinek said she thought Blagojevich's life story at the start of his testimony was "inspiring," but that he became evasive on cross-examination.
"It became less and less convincing," said the 32-year-old librarian.
And jurors noted that Blagojevich's testimony was uneven. Some days he spoke like he was back on a campaign trail; other times he contradicted himself; still others he seemed not to understand court procedures.
"There were times where he almost looked childish or that he really didn't know the law even though he was a lawyer," said Kimberly Spaetti, 31, who works in sales for a food company.
Juror Rosemary Bennett, 73, a retired food-service worker who told the court during jury selection that she loved classical music, said at times she felt the defense was trying to manipulate jurors.
Bennett cited their display of a photo of Blagojevich's home office on a courtroom screen that seemed to have something for them all: Books for the librarian, what they thought was a bust of Beethoven for her, the classical music fan, and Bibles for the faithful.
"We felt like that was shown to us for a very specific purpose," she said.
And juror Debbie Fawkes, 30, a pension administrator, sometimes found Blagojevich's infamous chattiness downright frustrating, and she remembers thinking, "Let's get down to business, let's hear what you have to say, let's not joke around."
Still, none took their duty lightly.
"This is a human being, this is his life that you're making this decision on," Hubinek said. "But when you do things like this, and you make your own bed, you have to live with the consequences."
Wilson put her choir-directing skills, perfected at Naperville's Holy Spirit church, to use in trying to track how the group was interacting and whether some jurors were out of sync.
"With a choir, you're looking for trouble spots in the music and going back," she said. "I was listening to all the jurors, understanding where they were, then adjusting, go back."