The corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich began Thursday, 18 months after authorities arrested him at home one morning and accused him of trying to sell the Senate seat that President Barack Obama had vacated for the White House.
A smiling and relaxed-looking Blagojevich had arrived at federal court with his wife, Patti, and stepped into a gantlet of about 30 waiting cameras and reporters. He hugged supporters and thanked them on his way into the courthouse. That included a group of women with signs, including May Farley, 78, of Elmhurst, who held a placard saying, "Rod's not cuckoo. Rod's not guilty."
"I feel great," said Blagojevich, who denies any wrongdoing. "The truth shall set you free," he told one well-wisher as he shook the man's hand.
Patti Blagojevich thanked supporters for helping them through a tough time.
"But today is a good day because today is the day that begins the process to correct a terrible injustice that has been done to my husband, our family and to the people of Illinois," she said. "My husband is an honest man. And I know that he is innocent."
Blagojevich displayed a hint of anxiety, though, several times dropping his wallet after walking through a metal detector. He held hands with his wife as they entered the courtroom where his trial is expected to last at least 3 months.
"We're here, we're ready to start and God willing we will prevail," Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky said earlier.
Prosecutors have 500 hours of secretly recorded FBI wiretaps of Blagojevich and his associates. They see a chance to send a second straight Illinois governor to prison in one of the biggest political trials ever in this corruption-plagued state.
Blagojevich's attorneys have said that the recordings, if played in their entirety, would show he did not try to sell the Senate seat. Since being impeached and ousted from office, Blagojevich has pleaded his case to the public from radio to reality TV.
The 53-year-old has pleaded not guilty to 24 counts including racketeering, wire fraud, attempted extortion and bribery. He and his co-defendant brother—54-year-old Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich—deny scheming to sell or trade the president's old Senate seat for personal gain.
The former governor also is charged with plotting to turn his administration into a giant moneymaking operation with profits to be divided between himself and a circle of advisers and fundraisers after he left office. If convicted, Blagojevich faces a maximum of 415 years in prison and fines totaling $6 million.
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel spoke to potential jurors about the gravity of their service before swearing them in. He said he plans to question up to 34 jurors a day until a jury is seated. Zagel also denied a request from five news organizations, including The Associated Press, to reverse his plan to keep the jury anonymous until after the trial.