It couldn't have started more dramatically.

A 6 a.m. arrest of a sitting governor at his home, followed by uncharacteristically strong remarks by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who famously described Rod Blagojevich as carrying out a "political corruption crime spree" and said his misconduct would make "Lincoln roll over in his grave."

Fitzgerald's controversial comments defined the case against Blagojevich for the news media and public, signaling the sale of the U.S. Senate seat as the marquee charge and ratcheting up pressure on the government to prove it.

That was 2 1/2 years ago. On Monday, after a second trial, a jury concurred with Fitzgerald, convicting Blagojevich of 17 of 20 counts of corruption, including the sale of the Senate seat.

While he appeared relieved by the verdict during a news conference Monday, Fitzgerald refused to characterize the case's outcome as a victory for him.

"The vindication is to the people of Illinois," Fitzgerald. "It's right that the citizens' interests are vindicated. That's not a personal joy. It's bittersweet, but we needed them to see that."

Fitzgerald is the longest-serving U.S. attorney in Chicago history, with nearly 10 years in office, and it's the second conviction of a former governor on his watch, following the corruption case against George Ryan.

For a number of reasons, though, the Blagojevich case is among the biggest ever for Fitzgerald's office, according to Richard Kling, a defense attorney and professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

"It's huge," said Kling, who has followed prosecutions at the Dirksen federal courthouse for 40 years. "It has captured the imagination of the world and the media for a long period of time."

The first trial against Blagojevich ended last summer with a jury deadlocked on all but one charge, finding him guilty of lying to the FBI. The government slimmed down its case for the second trial, a decision that Kling said "raised the stakes" for success.

Blagojevich's outspoken derision of the case against him also built heat on the government.

"This is a governor who has been saying for four years that he has been persecuted," Kling said. Had the verdict gone the other way, Blagojevich certainly would have trumpeted to the world that "he's been vindicated," Kling said.

While many agreed that the Blagojevich prosecution was a milestone for the U.S. attorney's office, they also said the office's reputation for fighting corruption has long been secure.

"It's obvious anytime you arrest a sitting governor, it's significant. It's a significant national case," said Sergio Acosta, a former assistant U.S. attorney. But "the office here has a very long tradition as being the leading office in the country as far as investigations of public corruption."

Similarly, many said Fitzgerald's reputation as a prosecutor has long been cemented with cases, both here and in New York, that include indicting Osama bin Laden well ahead of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks and prosecuting terrorists for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Fitzgerald has also earned convictions on mob bosses and hit men for decades-old gangland slayings, and convicted former Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese of racketeering and fraud.

"I don't know that the victory added much to his record or legacy," said veteran Chicago defense attorney Robert Loeb. "A defeat would have detracted from it though."

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