Feds' conviction rate bad sign for Blago

August 4, 2010 (CHICAGO)

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 94.1 percent of federal prosecutors' cases resolved in 2009 ended with a conviction. For a civil servant who liked to cite statistics during his mandate that's one number that may be hard to swallow.

A former city worker who pleaded guilty to taking bribes in 2006 has firsthand experience with prosecutors' success at convicting defendants.

"Unless you've been there you don't know how tenacious the federal prosecutors are," said Jim Laski. Last week Laski told ABC7's Ben Bradley that a politician's first instinct is to fight, but it's often the wrong one. "When they started playing back some of those tapes to me when they arrested me, I did the Blago thing where I said 'this is taken out of context, I'm gonna fight this.'"

Laski wrote about his decision to plead guilty in his book "My Fall From Grace: City Hall to Prison Walls." In the book he describes a candid conversation with his defense attorney in which they decide they can't win a case against the feds.

Government statistics corroborate Laski's assertion. In 2009, US Attorneys concluded criminal cases against 88,821 defendants nationwide; 81,577 ended with convictions and 96 percent of all those convicted pleaded guilty prior to or during their trial. Eighty one percent were sentenced to prison, according to DOJ statistics.

While the conviction rate for prosecutors in official corruption cases like Blagojevich's is slightly lower, the numbers still don't bode well for Blagojevich: 88 percent of defendants were convicted and 54 percent went to prison last year. Those numbers translate to 645 politicians, government bureaucrats and others who now have guilty convictions on their records. They include Blagojevich's former chief of staff, John Harris. He testified against the former governor and now faces no more than 35 months in prison.

In recent years, more defendants have been choosing to go to trial rather than reach a plea deal with prosecutors, according to a spokesman for the US Attorneys' office in Chicago. The spokesman theorizes that's because judges now have more discretion in sentencing so defendants hope a judge will be softer on them than the deals being offered by prosecutors. The US Attorneys' office says just a few years ago an average of only 50 cases a year brought by the US Attorney in Chicago actually made it to trial. This year federal prosecutors surpassed that number in July. Experts say that extra practice could help their conviction rate.

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