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Blagojevich jury selection enters last stretch

CHICAGO — A judge sought to wind down jury selection for the corruption retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, questioning a last batch of candidates Tuesday that included a man who had downloaded cell phone ring tones of Blagojevich’s infamous curses.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel has questioned several dozen would-be jurors over three days, 25 of whom remain in the jury pool. Zagel has said he wants 40 in that pool before making final decisions — possibly as soon as Tuesday afternoon — about the 12 jurors and six alternates who will sit in the jury box.

Several of those questioned Tuesday could be objectionable to one side or the other, so it wasn’t clear if the judge would be able to vet enough people to achieve his goal of seating a jury by Wednesday.

The defense may not look favorably on the man who downloaded the ringtones. He described himself as a Republican who “was critical and cynical about both parties.” But he also wrote in a questionnaire about Blagojevich that “I believe he is guilty.”

Several of those questioned Tuesday had some link to Children’s Memorial Hospital — the focus of one allegation that Blagojevich tried to squeeze campaign cash from the Chicago facility’s CEO by threatening to cancel a pediatric care reimbursement promised by the state.

Many potential jurors had children who had been treated at the hospital, and one man currently works there as a nurse and said he often discusses the allegation with his hospital colleagues.

In his first trial last year, Blagojevich was found guilty of lying to the FBI but jurors couldn’t reach a verdict on any other charges against him. Those included charges related to allegations that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat in exchange for campaign cash or a job after he left office. He denies any wrongdoing.

The jury foreman from Blagojevich’s first trial, James Matsumoto, attended court Tuesday as a spectator, sitting on a back bench and taking notes as the judge asked questions.

“I feel that there is unfinished business for me,” he told reporters outside the courtroom doors. “I have questions about jury selection, just how the whole process works.”

During jury selection, potential jurors are brought into the courtroom one by one to be questioned by the judge, and aren’t privy to discussions between the judge and attorneys about their fitness as jurors.

The final stage of jury selection involves the defense and prosecutors using their right to eliminate some people from the pool without giving a reason. Blagojevich’s lawyers will get 13 such strikes, called peremptory challenges, and prosecutors get nine.

Nearly all the potential jurors Zagel questioned have said they heard at least something about last year’s trial. The judge decided to keep some in the pool who said they formed unfavorable opinions of Blagojevich, saying he accepted their assurances that they could set aside any biases and weigh the case on the evidence alone.

If Zagel has a jury in place by Wednesday, opening statements could start late that day or more likely Thursday. The retrial is not expected to last as long as the first 2 1/2-month trial, in part because prosecutors have streamlined their case by dropping complex racketeering charges.