My Trial With Blago's Lawyer

Can Eddie Genson's fireworks get a fair trial for the hate figure of the hour?

Rod Blagojevich has instantly become the anti-heroic poster boy of this American recession Christmas. He incites, as Peggy Noonan writes, "Rectitude Chic." Blago is a providential wrongdoer to maintain the Orwellian hate. Even if he is guilty of something other than imprudent and vulgar bravura, he didn’t actually take a bribe. But he has allowed his enemies to represent him as a figure of immense gaucherie, cynicism, and stupidity. And in his hour of extremis, the Illinois Governor has engaged the colorful Eddie Genson, who was one of my counsel when the tyranny of Patrick Fitzgerald assaulted me two years ago.

Genson’s courtroom performance is almost a vaudeville act. At his clearest, he still sounds like Casey Stengel, if not Yogi Berra.

Genson has always been a criminal defense counsel and doesn't settle cases. He generally travels on a three-wheeled electric-motorized vehicle because of a long-standing muscular affliction, and drives through crowds of the press on his tricycle threatening to bash journalistic crania with his silver-handled cane. When overwrought, which is not infrequently, he drives his little conveyance around in tight circles wagging his chubby index finger like a parody of Hitler, and erupting verbally in wildly unpredictable allegations and images. It is impressive in a way, and at the least, entertaining. His courtroom performance is almost a vaudeville act. He is the archetypal small-office criminal lawyer, has a very animated and witty staff in an undecorated office in a pre-World War I building. Known as The Devil's Advocate, Genson has rarely represented an innocent, or even respectable, client. He is usually defeated by the government, but he is an amiable foil. His specialties are attracting the sympathy of the jury for his physical pluck and amusing it with his lively wit. He creates confusion with his tendency toward obfuscation, confused syntax, and the presumably unintentional tumble of mispronunciations and malapropisms that frequent and adorn his arguments. At his clearest, he still sounds like Casey Stengel, if not Yogi Berra. Genson is a large, unfeasible man, whose entire head except for eyes, nose, ears cheeks and forehead, is covered by curly, reddish hair. He is addicted to his demimonde of Damon Runyon hoods and eccentric celebrities. He regards the whole process as theater rather than justice, and "fun for everyone except the defendants." With that said, he does give his all for his clients, and is a wily court tactician, who wins most of his objections. The fatuous ideas that the governor would quickly resign, or that the legislature could quickly purge him, were pretty well debunked by Genson's buffo cameo appearance in Springfield last week. The grounds for impeachment in Illinois are not clear, and if the objective is to dispose of Blago, his enemies are better to leave it to US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is experienced at bulldozing juries, after dismembering his victims in the media first, and then throwing enough spaghetti at the wall in his scores of charges to bury the defense and muddle the unsolomonic jurors. Blagojevich is a perfect useful idiot for the prosecutocracy to stir up public anger and distract anyone who might wonder why the US has eight to twelve times as many incarcerated people per capita as any other advanced country. The plea bargain and denunciation system enables the system to extort or suborn whatever perjury they need to satisfy impressionable, envious jurors relying on their recollections of often complicated testimony. Procedure and evidentiary rules are a stacked deck; the judges are usually ex-prosecutors whose leanings are obvious, and the prosecutors win more than 90% of their cases—a large number of them by force majeure, not merit. If the governor of one of the country's largest states is talking about selling the US Senate seat of the president-elect, we obviously need even more fierce inquisitions, more sensationally publicized media trials, more crowded prisons, longer sentences, and all the other trumperies of the rampaging prosecutors.

Trying to get two thirds of a state legislature to vote for removal of the governor after Eddie Genson has finished describing the case against his client will not be easy—unless the facts are much more damaging than what Fitzgerald has fed the press so far. Genson sent the legislators scrambling under their desks by calling them a kangaroo court, and it was obvious they had no idea what they were getting into. I wouldn't want to prejudge Blagojevich's case as everyone else has, but he may be better off brokering his way out of the governor's mansion in exchange for a legislated immunity or reduced sentence, than going into the Coliseum to face Fitzgerald's trained beasts and braying mobs. Eddie Genson will surely be a valuable and astute judge of the comparative merits of available courses for his client. But I doubt if he has the subtlety, fluency, legal support, or physical and intellectual stamina to fight a criminal trial against the resources of the US attorney in Chicago. Though when it comes to demoralizing the legislature with the prospect of a prolonged crisis in the governor's office, and playing off the legislators—many of whom don't come to a discussion of official propriety with clean hands—against Fitzgerald, Eddie Genson will perform with skill and panache. Governor Blagojevich is a timely Christmas Grinch, but Americans will realize eventually that lawless prosecutors in many of the courthouses in the land are more of a menace to this country than a rather contemptible holiday hate-figure. By all means let us clean up the Illinois government and banish the recession, but understand that we will always have scoundrels with us, and would probably be bored without them. The decay of the justice system is a mortal threat to the judicial soul of America.

Conrad Black is the author of biographies of Maurice Duplessis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Richard M. Nixon, was the publisher of the London Telegraph newspapers and Spectator, and founded the National Post of Canada. He has been a life peer in the British House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour since 2001.