A federal judge denied a retrial on Tuesday for longtime Illinois powerbroker William Cellini, rejecting defense arguments that the 77-year-old didn't get a fair trial because a juror supposedly lied about her criminal past during jury selection.
Judge James Zagel issued his sometimes colorful, sharply worded ruling in what has been seen as the last trial to grow out of a decade-long investigation of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
His decision comes after jurors convicted the Springfield Republican last year of conspiring to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby" for a contribution to Blagojevich's campaign.
Defense attorneys had demanded a retrial, citing post-trial revelations that juror Candy Chiles lied about her criminal history and thereby denied Cellini a fair trial. It wasn't discovered that she apparently had lied until after the trial ended in November.
Surprisingly, Zagel told the attorneys assembled before him that he did not accept Chiles intentionally lied when she indicated during jury selection she had no felony convictions -- even though she had two, for drug possession and aggravated DUI.
Chiles did not deliberately lie but misread the question," he said. "This was an innocent error and not uncommon," especially when jurors are understandably ill-at-ease in a tense environment and not as proficient as lawyers in grappling with the nuances of questions.
Questions asked in questionnaires handed out to prospective jurors do not have clear right and wrong answers, Zagel explained, saying that was by design precisely to avoid making the integrity of prospective panelists easy targets of attorneys.
"(Jury selection) is not intended to be a complete interrogation ... because of the high costs," which include frightening citizens as a whole from ever wanting to serve on juries -- the very bedrock of the U.S. justice system, Zagel said.
He also seemed to accept an argument prosecutors made at an earlier hearing that there was no proof Chiles was biased or ill-suited for jury duty, despite reacting emotionally during a recent evidentiary hearing.
"I'm not under trial," she snapped in answering a question from defense attorney Dan Webb. "I haven't did anything wrong."
At another point, she stormed from the room yelling, "Leave me alone!"
"What I saw was a person who has more than a few troubles in her life -- but (was) not a disaster," Zagel said Tuesday about her.
Zagel also took Webb to task for pressing Chiles in court, saying he purposely "pushed her buttons" to elicit her anger. He described Webb's questions as the "verbal brutality" of a layman who did not have the sophistication of a trained lawyer and wasn't expected to.
Cellini, who faces up to 30 years in prison for conspiracy to commit extortion and aiding in the solicitation of a bribe, leaned forward on his defense-table chair Tuesday, straining to hear the hushed-voiced Zagel. Cellini showed no reaction when the judge said there would be no retrial.
Neither side spoke at Tuesday's 20-minute hearing, which was called only to allow Zagel to announce and explain his ruling. Cellini and his attorneys left the Chicago courthouse without speaking to reporters. Prosecutors also did not comment.
Webb argued at a hearing last week that the juror's lies created a built-in bias against his client, telling Zagel at the time that it would be wrong to allow a verdict to stand when someone so flawed sat in judgment of Cellini.
Prosecutor Chris Niewoehner countered that the proceedings shouldn't be dragged out so long after jurors rendered what he said was a proper verdict, saying "There is a strong (public) interest in finality here. This was a fair trial."
Cellini, once known as the King of Clout in Illinois for the influence he wielded in the corridors of state power, has attended hearings on the case in Chicago. The multimillionaire businessman appeared relaxed but engaged last week as the sides delivered their arguments.
Chiles admitted she gave inaccurate answers during jury selection when she said she didn't have any convictions. She had pleaded guilty in the 1990s to felony drug possession charges and in 2008 to felony aggravated DUI.
At the evidentiary hearing, she offered scant explanation for why she didn't reveal her convictions, and often appeared flustered and confused.
Among those who attended court Tuesday to hear the judge's ruling was the jury foreman at Cellini's trial, William Nast. He said before the proceedings began that Chiles never acted inappropriately in any way during the trial itself or during deliberations.
"There were never any problems," he said, speaking outside the courtroom.