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OK, free Blago, but first make him wait for mercy the way he made others wait

Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, June 12, 2018  |  Column  |  Eric Zorn

Blagojevich, Rod

I’ve heard from and spoken to many people in the last few weeks with contrasting yet quite reasonable views on whether President Donald Trump should release former Gov. Rod Blagojevich from prison now that he’s served more than six years of his 14-year federal sentence for corruption.

 

Blagojevich’s spectacular venality betrayed the trust of millions of Illinoisans and he’s never admitted his crimes or properly apologized for them, say those who agree with my basic take on the matter. A long, harsh sentence reflects the magnitude of that betrayal and is a fittingly harsh deterrent to all who hold public office.

 

Enough already, say those in the let-him-out caucus. He was sleazy but feckless, didn’t actually hurt anyone and his sentence was dramatically out of scale with sentences given to other corrupt politicians, in part, it seems, because he was so insufferable between his arrest and convictions. Proportional justice demands his release.

 

Karma suggests a compromise solution.

Tuesday, Blagojevich’s legal team filed the official paperwork with the U.S. Department of Justice requesting executive clemency.

 

As it happens, Blagojevich is quite familiar with the process, given that he had the power to commute sentences and issue pardons for state crimes when he was governor from 2003 to 2009.

 

People convicted of crimes would petition him through the Illinois Prisoner Review Board asking for their freedom or asking that he expunge their burdensome and sometimes dubious criminal records so they could get on with their lives. The review board would consider their pleas and then forward confidential recommendations to Blagojevich.

 

And what did Blagojevich do with these recommendations? For the most part, he let them pile up on his desk. Out of laziness or indifference or fear that he’d suffer politically if he made an unpopular decision, Blagojevich allowed applicants to wait and wait and wait.

 

Did they all deserve mercy? Almost certainly not. The justice system usually gets it right and some felony convictions should never be erased.

 

But they all deserved answers one way or the other.

 

Blagojevich was in no hurry then. Though he acted on hundreds of seemingly easy cases, denying 93 percent of them, the backlog of pending cases grew and grew.

 

When it approached 1,000 in 2006, the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic filed suit in federal court on behalf of nine plaintiffs demanding that Blagojevich "act on clemency petitions within a reasonable period of time." Lawyers for the state ultimately succeeded in defending the governor's right to dawdle and dither and duck his responsibility.

 

When the backlog was approaching 2,000 in 2008, the General Assembly passed a law allowing potential exonerees to bypass the governor's office and apply to the courts for relief. Blagojevich tried to block that law, but lawmakers overrode his veto.

 

By the time Blagojevich was removed from office in early 2009, the Prisoner Review Board estimated the number of pending appeals at more than 3,000 — by far the largest such backlog in the nation according to those who track such things.

 

Here’s a quote: The governor “sleeps in a lot. I don't think he works that hard. I think that partly explains why he hasn't addressed some of (the clemency requests). He likes the easy, popular stuff … doesn't want to have to make decisions and make somebody angry, because when you go through those pardons, you've got to do the just thing. ... But he doesn't want to get his hands dirty."

 

Who said it? Blagojevich himself, sniping on the radio in October 2009 at his successor, Pat Quinn, for not moving faster to cut the backlog that he left behind.

 

In those days, Blagojevich frequently called Quinn a coward for refusing to come on the radio and debate him. So I contacted Blagojevich, then a private citizen, and offered to debate him myself about his failure to act on so many pardon and clemency petitions. Naturally he refused.

 

The applicants he ignored had in many instances been people with families who, like Blagojevich’s family today, were suffering from their misdeeds. They, too, wanted a fresh start, a measure of compassion if not absolution.

 

By the way and to his credit, Gov. Bruce Rauner “has gotten through the entire backlog,” according to a spokesman for the Illinois Prisoner Review Board I spoke to on Friday. The number of pending petitions is now 150. “Nearly everyone is getting a decision in well under a year.”

 

Now that the tables have turned on Blagojevich, it seems only proper that his official request for clemency end up gathering dust for a while before he gets his answer.

 

Two years seems fitting. That’s the length of time that former prisoner Marlon Pendleton had to wait from late 2006, when DNA evidence definitively cleared him of a rape conviction, until Blagojevich signed off on his pardon request.

 

Two years of Blagojevich checking his messages, pestering his lawyers, peering into his mailbox. Two years of wondering if anyone’s listening to him, if anyone cares, if the powers that be will let him and his family get on with their lives.

 

Two years of knowing how it felt. Two years of choking down spoonfuls of his own bitter medicine.

 

Two years sounds like justice, actual and cosmic, to me.

 

Coffee Talk

At 10 a.m. Sunday my colleague Mary Schmich and I will be making another one of our “Coffee with …” appearances at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest in the South

Loop. Come hang with us for a while. We’ll answer questions and probably lead the singing of a few folk songs as well, because our branding consultants feel that is wise.

 

Re: Tweets

The winner of this week’s online reader poll for funniest tweet is, “How does Time Warner not make alarm clocks?” by @fro_vo. To receive an email alert after each new poll is posted, go to chicagotribune.com/newsletters and sign up under Change of Subject. Go to chicagotribune.com/zorn to read my selections for the funniest tweets of May.