From one juror to another: Put your life on hold

Suburban woman who sat on Rezko jury gives advice to those serving in Blagojevich case

  • Susan Lopez, left, principal at Cross Evangelical Lutheran School in Yorkville, knows what's in store for the jurors in trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his brother, Rob. Lopez served on the Tony Rezko jury for three months.

    Susan Lopez, left, principal at Cross Evangelical Lutheran School in Yorkville, knows what's in store for the jurors in trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his brother, Rob. Lopez served on the Tony Rezko jury for three months. Associated Press/Verna Sadock

  • Susan Lopez, principal at Cross Evangelical Lutheran School in Yorkville, served on the Rezko jury for three months.

    Susan Lopez, principal at Cross Evangelical Lutheran School in Yorkville, served on the Rezko jury for three months. BEV HORNE/

Published: 6/13/2010 12:01 AM

Spring 2008 was a hectic time in the life of Sue Lopez. She took care of her live-in mother, who had dementia, and tried to sell her house; she worked as principal of an elementary school; and she was picked to serve on the federal jury trying influence peddler Tony Rezko.

So now, as the trial of former governor and Rezko associate Rod Blagojevich gets under way, Lopez is following the case with keen interest. And though jurors in the new trial are forbidden from reading about the case in the media, as she was, Lopez has a word of warning for them: "Your life goes on hold."

The Blagojevich jury of 12 jurors and six alternates, whose identities are being kept secret until the trial is over, comprises 11 women and seven men. Some on the jury are retired, and others are young students. One is a Western Illinois University accounting major from Hoffman Estates; another is planning to attend the College of DuPage in the fall. A surprising number have military or legal backgrounds or family connections in those areas.

In addition to the expected questions about their attitudes toward Blagojevich and wiretapping, Judge James Zagel asked if they had any experience working in a family business, evidently to determine if they'd have any bias in co-defendant Robert Blagojevich's expected defense that he was just helping his brother in political fundraising.

As an example of what to expect, for Rezko's trial, nearly every weekday for three months, Lopez got up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. to feed and give medicine to her mother, then took a train from her home in Yorkville to Chicago, sat attentively and took notes in court all day, and got home around 6 p.m.

She had to schedule staff meetings at night or when she had a break from court every other Friday. Every weekend, she planned all the activities her staff had to carry out that week. Members of her church, Cross Evangelical Lutheran, helped care for her mother.

One day while she was in court, Lopez got a call that her mother had been found unconscious on the floor of their home and had been taken to the hospital.

Even when her mother stayed in the hospital with pneumonia, Lopez had to attend the trial.

With a jury pool of 12 plus six alternates, none of the jurors knew who would end up on the jury. Only when testimony ended and six jurors were told to go home did they find out. Zagel appears to be doing things much the same, as the jurors and alternates have not been designated thus far.

Faced with picking a foreman, the Rezko jury went with the one person who had been a foreman in a previous trial. When that person proved inexperienced at organizing and leading a group, other jurors had to step in to fill the void.

Zagel too asked prospective jurors if they had previously served on a jury and, if so, if it had reached a verdict, as well as if they had experience delegating authority. He also seemed interested in runners and their training regimens, as if it showed discipline and focus. One outdoorswoman who wound up on the jury admitted to liking horseback riding and boating on the Chain O' Lakes.

In the Rezko case, Lopez asked the bailiff for tape and markers so the panel could tape up faces of witnesses and write down evidence and flow charts on a large white board to keep track of the complex case.

Which brings Lopez to the one piece of advice she has for new jurors: Be very careful choosing a foreman.

"Pick a good foreman with organizational and leadership skills," she said.

Though the jurors weren't happy about serving on such a long trial, they took the responsibility seriously.

"It became really important to me," Lopez said. "This is what America is all about."

John Polishak, a Chicago plumber and a juror in the six-week 2008 trial of Juan Luna for the murders of seven people at the Brown's Chicken in Palatine, was overwhelmed by the amount of information the lawyers presented.

After opening statements, and even two weeks into the trial, he felt Luna was innocent. It wasn't until all the evidence was in, he said, that jurors began to see how the pieces fit together to make a "slam dunk" case of guilt.

So his main piece of advice to jurors? "Keep an open mind."

Ultimately, the Luna jury was sequestered during its deliberations.

One holdout didn't initially believe Luna's guilt, but could not explain what made her doubt it, which was exasperating to the other jurors. But they had been together long enough, taking turns bringing in meals to share for lunch, that they forged a bond that helped them talk it out.

"You're going to be together a long time," Polishak said, "so if you're all getting along, it'll make things a lot easier in tougher times."

For Jill Russell, of Naperville, who served last year on the jury that convicted serial murderer Brian Dugan in the death of Jeanine Nicarico, "It kind of consumes your life."

Like other jurors, she said, despite the judge's admonishments not to talk about the case with anyone while the trial was under way, people frequently would ask about it and try to "pry it out of you," but she refused to discuss it.

Ultimately, her jury imposed the death penalty on Dugan, making it a very different case than Blagojevich's. Nevertheless, the ex-governor faces years in prison if convicted in the political corruption case.

"Be prepared, it's very emotional, because the defendant's life is in your hands," she said.

The trial of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was perhaps most similar to the Blagojevich case.

It dragged on six months and ended in contentious deliberations in which a couple of jurors were excused for lying on their initial questionnaires about any criminal background, including one who was said to maintain Ryan's innocence. Others were kept on despite similar findings, including the forewoman. There were also charges two jurors brought in outside legal arguments during deliberations. All the jurors soon became pawns in the appeal process, which proved unsuccessful.

At one point after the trial, Ryan juror Leslie Losacco of Deerfield went so far as to file a motion with Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer attempting to limit interviews. "The post-trial proceedings are degenerating into a tug of war with the jury as the rope," her attorney wrote. "Mrs. Losacco's desire is to return to a normal life outside the media and judicial spotlight."

Fellow juror Kevin Rein of Glen Ellyn was later quoted as saying Ryan defense attorney Dan Webb was "crossing the line going after the jurors."

Zagel has seemed intent on not duplicating that experience as well. Reporters have already commented on how he's maintained much tighter rein on the case than what occurred in the Ryan trial. Where that trial extended to six months, Zagel's preliminary questionnaire sent to prospective jurors asked if a trial in the neighborhood of four months would prove a hardship. Of course, that would still intrude on the fall semester for those Western Illinois and College of DuPage students, but the possibility exists they could be excused as alternates.

Otherwise, Zagel appears resolved to push things along, while allowing jurors Fridays off, something he said was important in an extended trial.

Although Zagel praised media efforts to reveal those discrepancies in the questionnaires in the Ryan case, he's kept jury identities secret for Blagojevich, unlike in the Ryan case, saying in the current media environment jurors would be too prone to getting messages from bloggers and other interested parties via e-mail. He asked almost every prospective juror about their computer use, not just in how they obtained their news and any previous information about Blagojevich.

While stern, he's also offered praise for their service. Zagel began each round of jury selection by citing how trial by jury was an essential part of the Declaration of Independence, and that "your presence in this court is a living symbol of the birth of our nation." He appears intent on preserving that right in all ways.