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Monday, January 5, 2009

What if Blagojevich Is Not Guilty?

Events are moving so quickly in the saga of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, that there has been precious little time to reflect. But as I look back on the past month, I keep thinking of Raymond J. Donovan, and a question keeps nagging me; what if Blagojevich is not guilty?

While many acknowledge that Blagojevich is entitled to the presumption of innocence, almost no one is acting that way. If ever there were a case where bad facts risked making bad law, the Blagojevich case is it.

U.S Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced that Blagojevich was guilty, and everyone else -- including liberals who never take a prosecutor's word for anything -- fell into line. The Illinois newspapers called for Blagojevich to resign. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan took the unprecedented and unjustified step of seeking to have the Illinois Supreme Court remove Blagojevich (she lost). The Illinois House is pushing through impeachment hearings using procedures that do not allow Blagojevich a meaningful opportunity to defend himself, without even touching Fitzgerald's accusations which were the initial basis for impeachment. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is about to create horrible and unconstitutional precedent by refusing to seat the duly and legally appointed Roland Burris for purely political reasons.

In this rush to judgment (damn, I really didn't want to use that phrase), I wonder whether we are forgetting the true meaning of the presumption of innocence. Blagojevich hasn't been convicted of anything, and believe it or not, sometimes people are found not guilty even where they have been tried and convicted in the media. And that is why I keep thinking of Ray Donovan.

Donovan was Secretary of Labor under Ronald Reagan. Donovan was indicted for fraud unrelated to his public service, and resigned. No one was surprised, because unproven corruption charges had plagued Donovan for years. The case received huge media attention, with the prosecutors proudly proclaiming Donovan's guilt. At the end of the trial, however, all defendants were found not guilty on all charges. After his acquittal "Donovan, rigid and pale, called out to Prosecutor Stephen Bookin, 'Give me back my reputation!'" In a famous scene, standing on the court house steps, Donovan further proclaimed "Which office do I go to get my reputation back?"

Ray Donovan is not the only high-profile defendant to be acquitted after conviction in the press. Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill are just two who also come to mind.

I don't predict the Blagojevich outcome. Most people in Illinois presumed he was corrupt before Fitzgerald took the stage. Fitzgerald may have been the excuse people were looking for. But in the urge to get Blagojevich, let's not trample our laws, constitutions, and common sense.

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