Nerves frayed at the retrial of impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday, as attorneys briefly butted heads over whether race and class were behind the elimination of some jurors as the two sides prepared to present their initial arguments to a seated jury on Monday.
The tension came on the last day that potential jurors were questioned. Judge James Zagel said the final selection of jurors out of the 45 candidates remaining would happen Monday. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will deliver opening statements immediately after the jury is seated, he said.
The heightened emotions are an indication of just how much is at stake in jury selection. Blagojevich's first trial ended with a hung jury after a lone holdout prevented conviction on the most serious allegation, that the ousted governor tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat in exchange for campaign cash or a top job.
After the government asked Zagel to dismiss an unemployed man who said he spends his days watching reruns of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and who struggled to express himself during his interview, defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky bristled.
"Maybe he didn't speak King's English . . . but we would be developing a class standard if we don't let him serve," Sorosky said. He added that prosecutors seemed to want only people who could "be depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting" as jurors.
Dropping his characteristic formality, prosecutor Reid Schar turned to Sorosky and said angrily, "Shelly, go ahead and argue your point but don't misinterpret what I'm saying."
In the end, Zagel dismissed the man on the grounds that he "seems to be entirely detached from reality."
The defense threw race into the mix after prosecutors moved to exclude a woman business owner, citing her claim of financial hardship. Sorosky suggested the real reason was because the woman is black.
"This woman also happens to be a woman of color, and we are also removing these people from the jury," Sorosky said.
Zagel disagreed, saying he didn't think the government meant to exclude her because of her race. He then excused her on financial hardship grounds.
Of those remaining in the jury pool, fewer than five are black. The lone holdout juror at the trial last summer was an African-American woman.
As in previous days, many prospective candidates Thursday said they had definite opinions about the twice-elected governor. A retired nurse wrote "Guilty as charged" about Blagojevich in her questionnaire. Zagel later dismissed her.
Another person the judge dismissed was a woman who had tickets to "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and was worried jury duty would force her to miss it.
Among those still in the pool is a federal probation officer and a self-proclaimed Republican who downloaded ringtones of profanity-laced quotes from Blagojevich onto his cell phone.
The first jury did find Blagojevich guilty of lying to the FBI. He has pleaded not guilty to all 20 charges he faces at the retrial.
The retrial is not expected to last as long as the first trial — which spanned 2 1/2-months — in part because prosecutors have streamlined their case.
Zagel told attorneys they can exercise their right to eliminate prospective jurors without having to give a reason on Monday morning. Prosecutors get nine such challenges and the defense gets 13. That's the final step before a jury is seated.
The judge also said he'd let prosecutors put their first witness on the stand Monday, an FBI agent who testified at the first trial about the agency's secret surveillance of Blagojevich. That lays the groundwork for the prosecution's case, which relies heavily on FBI wiretap recordings.