Exclusive: Blago juror talks about 'not guilty' vote

April 19, 2011 4:04:27 PM PDT
The one juror who did not believe former governor Rod Blagojevich was guilty on the charge of selling a U.S. Senate seat in his first trial speaks exclusively to ABC7's Paul Meincke.

"I just didn't see what some of the others did," JoAnn Chiakulas said Monday. She spoke publically for the first time since that August 17, 2010 verdict when Blagojevich was found guilty on only one count -- providing false statements. Jurors were unable to agree on the 23 other counts.

"I could not go with what the other people thought because I would not have been able to live with myself. I had to do what I thought was the right thing to do," said the retired state public health employee.

Chiakulas, who rejects the term "hold-out juror" as a moniker because she believes it's inaccurate and unfair given the one Blagojevich conviction, has been reluctant to talk on camera. However, she has agreed to do just that -- in part because of the passage of time and in part to set the record straight but mostly to raise concerns about jurors in high profile cases and the pressure they face in the deliberations room and the scrutiny that comes after.

"I just think for myself. I'm not contrary. I'm not ornery. I don't like to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing just to be different," Chiakulas said.

Chiakulas struggled with her deliberations, questioned herself and challenged her fellow jurors, but in the end did not agree with what 11 others concluded - that Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat that once belonged to President Barack Obama.

She said she's speaking now -- as the Blagojevich retrial nears -- about her experience so other jurors will be aware of what came next.

"It was awful. I expected there would be publicity, but I was absolutely unprepared for the onslaught," Chiakulas said.

Chiakulas said there were phone calls at all hours of the day and night and a TV helicopter overhead one day. She stayed with relatives, couldn't sleep, didn't eat much and was called " crazy," "the hold-out" juror.

"The jury shouldn't be on trial. Or a juror or several jurors shouldn't be on trial. The defendant was on trial," Chiakulas said. "Our obligation was not, again, to the public, to the defense, to the prosecution, to the press. Our obligation was to do as good a job as we can given the evidence and circumstances that we found ourselves in in that jury room."

There was a furious thirst after the trial to find out why all the jurors voted the way they did, but after having been called crazy, and in the midst of unfounded conspiracy theory, Chiakulis concluded it would serve no purpose to publicly defend her decision.

"I felt angry that my jury service was receiving such negative publicity," said Chiakulas.

In the months that followed the first trial, Chiakulas received cards and notes - some from strangers - applauding her for sticking to her guns.

Knowing that jury selection was coming in the second Blagojevich trial, Chiakulas recently called Judge James Zagel to tell him of her experience, and to recommend - among other things - that if jurors want to talk post verdict, as they did in the Ryan trial, perhaps that opportunity should be promoted immediately at trial's end - but with caveats.

"When you start going down the road - well this one voted this way and that one voted this way. Frankly, I don't think that's anyone's business," she said.

Jurors are under no legal obligation to explain their votes, though in high profile cases, they quite often do. When the jurors are selected to hear the second Blagojevich case, Chiakulas wants them to know that there will be a spotlight, and pressure.

"I'm not advocating for guilty or not guilt. Go where the evidence takes you, but if you believe something strongly and you have evidence that you don't want to leave there feeling, 'Oh my goodness, if only I had followed what I thought,' that's a heavy burden to carry," said Chiakulas.