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Appeals Court Tosses Some Blagojevich Convictions, Vacates Prison Sentence

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A federal appeals court has thrown out some of the convictions against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and tossed out his 14-year prison sentence.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling Tuesday, throwing out five of the 18 convictions on corruption charges Blagojevich had faced. Eleven were tied to allegations he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's Senate seat.

Although the ruling ordered a new trial on those five charges, it also said if prosecutors elect to drop those charges, a new trial is not needed, and the district court should proceed directly to a new sentencing. A new sentencing would not necessarily mean Blagojevich's sentence would be reduced.

At a press conference outside the former governor's home, BLagojevich's attorney Leonard Goodman hadn't yet spoken with Blagojevich about his next steps.

"The evidence that would have acquitted him was excluded at trial and my advice to the governor is that he should fight on,"Goodman said.

Patti Blagojevich said the family was disappointed that the ruling didn't go far enough.

"The only thing good that I can say today is that possibly this is a step in the right direction of getting Rod home to his family," she said.

Patti said she had spoken with Rod about the decision and that he was disappointed but optimistic.

Blagojevich, 58, has been in prison in near Denver since March 2012, but the appeals court said he is not entitled to be released from custody pending further proceedings, likely because it upheld convictions on 13 other counts, and he will still likely face a long prison sentence on those charges.

The judges vacated Blagojevich's convictions on five charges that he tried to swap an appointment of Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to the president's former Senate seat in exchange for any of a number of benefits for Blagojevich -- from an appointment to Obama's cabinet, to a high-paying private sector job, to setting up a well-funded non-profit that Blagojevich could oversee.


The court said there was an error in the jury instructions for those counts.

"A jury could have found that Blagojevich asked the President-elect for a private-sector job, or for funds that he could control, but the instructions permitted the jury to convict even if it found that his only request of Sen. Obama was for a position in the Cabinet. The instructions treated all proposals alike. We conclude, however, that they are legally different: a proposal to trade one public act for another, a form of logrolling, is fundamentally unlike the swap of an official act for a private payment," the court wrote. "Because the instructions do not enable us to be sure that the jury found that Blagojevich offered to trade the appointment for a private salary after leaving the Governorship, these convictions cannot stand."

The court said trading one political appointment for another "is a common exercise in logrolling," and could find no previous criminal convictions based on such actions. They also pointed to a famous deal supposedly struck by former California Governor Earl Warren, who -- legend has it -- threw his support behind Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election, in exchange for a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court after Eisenhower won.

"If the standard account is true both the President of the United States and the Chief Justice of the United States should have gone to prison," the court wrote. "Yet although historians and political scientists have debated whether this deal was made, or whether if made was ethical (or politically unwise), no one to our knowledge has suggested that it violated the statutes involved in this case."

To read the entire opinion, click here.
The U.S. Attorney's office declined comment on the ruling.

Robert Blagojevich, the brother of ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, tells WBBM, "I'm cautiously optimistic. Cautiously optimistic and hopeful. My brother needs every break he can get because he's not gotten any."

Robert Blagojevich had also been on trial, but the charges were dropped after there was a hung jury in that part of the case.

Today's news doesn't sit well with one of the jurors who helped convict Blagojevich. James Matusmoto was the foreman of the jury in Blagojevich's first trial.

"I was very disappointed in the 7th Court of Appeals that they would overturn five counts especially the most telling counts, the selling of the senate seat," Matsumoto said. "You have to sit in the court room every day and listen to the testimony and listen to the phone conversations of the governor and his staff to understand where the crime was actually committed."

Matusmoto also said today's ruling doesn't change his opinion.

The former governor also was convicted of a number of other schemes, including allegations he tried to squeeze Children's Memorial Hospital executives for campaign cash in exchange for additional state funding, and an attempt to shake down a racetrack owner for a donation in exchange for legislation favorable to the industry.

Blagojevich had sought to have his entire conviction thrown out, arguing there was insufficient evidence, but the appeals court called that argument "frivolous."

"The evidence, much of it from Blagojevich's own mouth, is overwhelming. To the extent there are factual disputes, the jury was entitled to credit the prosecution's evidence and to find that Blagojevich acted with the knowledge required for conviction," the court wrote.

Specifically, the judges rejected Blagojevich's argument that he should not have been convicted of a crime because none of the charges alleged an explicit quid pro quo exchange of one thing for another.

"The statute does not have a magic-words requirement. Few politicians say, on or off the record, 'I will exchange official act X for payment Y.' Similarly per-sons who conspire to rob banks or distribute drugs do not propose or sign contracts in the statutory language. 'Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you know what I mean' can amount to extortion under the Hobbs Act, just as it can furnish the gist of a Monty Python sketch," the judges wrote.

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