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Rezko won't take the stand

The Nation

May 06, 2008|Jeff Coen | Bob Secter and Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Until Monday, political insider Antoin "Tony" Rezko had been heard only in brief recordings during the course of his two-month fraud trial. Rezko finally spoke up in person -- but only to tell a judge that he had no intention of taking the stand.

In fact, lawyers for Rezko told the judge that they wouldn't be calling any witnesses.

Rezko's defense chose to rest after putting into evidence only a list of documents. They were making a tactical decision to try to show that prosecutors had fallen short of proving that Rezko used his influence with Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich to corrupt two state boards.

"We do not believe the government has met its burden proving the charges against Mr. Rezko, plain and simple," Rezko's lawyer, Joseph Duffy, told reporters as he left court.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve gave the jury the rest of the week off after quizzing Rezko as to whether he understood his legal right to testify.

St. Eve asked Rezko whether he preferred to testify or remain silent.

"To remain silent," Rezko answered.

Closing arguments are to begin Monday.

Rezko has drawn national attention as a onetime fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. The Democratic presidential candidate has sought to distance himself from Rezko by donating to charity $160,000 in Rezko-related contributions.

Veteran Chicago lawyers said the decision not to put on a defense -- especially in a case with relatively little direct evidence against the defendant -- was not unusual.

"Once you put a witness on the stand, you even the playing field when you really want it to be as lopsided as possible," said lawyer Joseph Lopez.

Defense lawyers want to avoid the impression that they're trying to prove a defendant innocent, he said.

Richard S. Kling, a defense lawyer and professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, said that in the Rezko case, much of the damaging evidence had involved the word of witnesses, as opposed to anything more concrete.

The defense has put on its case through cross-examination, Kling said, trying to inject reasonable doubt.

The government's central witness is Stuart P. Levine, who told the jury that, as a member of the state boards, he helped Rezko.

He was the only witness to say that Rezko had been in any kind of planning session, though other witnesses were called to try to corroborate parts of Levine's testimony.

But Levine also told the jury that he had a history of abusing hard drugs such as cocaine and crystal methamphetamine.

The jury could begin weighing the case as soon as May 15.

Ali Ata, the final substantive prosecution witness of the trial, wrapped up his testimony early Monday after three days on the stand.

Ata, handpicked by Rezko to head the Illinois Finance Authority, a state loan agency, said that he bought and retained his state post by paying bribes to Rezko and by giving sizable campaign contributions to Blagojevich.

Duffy, Rezko's lawyer, pressed Ata to admit that no records existed of any of the transactions and bribes he had described to the jury.

"For all these things, all we have is your word?" Duffy asked. He then added: "Sir, you are a convicted liar, are you not?"

Kling said that in cases in which a client of his has not taken the stand, jurors' first question for him after reaching a verdict has been why the defendant didn't testify.

"Their thought is that if they were accused of something and they were innocent, they'd testify," he said. "They say, 'I'd want to scream it from the top of the Sears Tower.' "

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