US District Judge James Zagel, ‘Renaissance man’ who presided over some of Chicago’s biggest trials, dies at 82

Longtime U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel, the former Illinois state police chief who later presided over former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s corruption trial, the landmark Family Secrets trial and many other top cases in the region, died Saturday night after a long illness, according to court officials. He was 82 years old.

Known for his wry sense of humor, unflappable demeanor, and side projects that included acting and writing a well-regarded legal thriller, Zagel ran a no-frills courtroom and became the one of the main faces of the federal court in Chicago.

“Judge James Zagel was not only a much admired federal judge; he played one in the movies,” U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer wrote in a statement. “Anyone who knew him could see why: he looked the part and he really lived the part, reflecting the best of the Third Branch in his wisdom, common sense and dry wit.”

Pallmeyer described Zagel as a “Renaissance man”, a lover of arts, music and literature and “a man of elegance and charm”.

“And he was a valued friend to the lawyers and law enforcement officers he worked with for many years, his court officers, and especially his fellow judges, whom he misses very much,” Pallmeyer said. .

Current Illinois State Police Superintendent Brendan Kelly said in a written statement Sunday that Zagel’s leadership at the agency “has left behind a lasting culture of ethical, professional and intelligent enforcement. of the law”.

“Every FAI director and everyone who works in our agency aspires to live up to its standards, whether they realize it or not, and that’s a hell of a legacy,” Kelly said.

He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Margaret Maxwell Zagel, and many beloved cousins ​​and dear friends, according to a U.S. District Court statement.

Funeral arrangements were pending Sunday morning.

Born in Chicago in 1941, James Block Zagel as a child traveled to Chicago Bears games at Wrigley Field from his family’s Lakeview apartment, the statement said. He played tennis at the University of Chicago, studied philosophy, and earned a master’s degree in 1962.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Zagel joined the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in 1965, where he helped secure the conviction of Richard Speck, the notorious murderer of eight side school nursing students. southeast of the city.

From 1970 to 1977, Zagel headed the Criminal Division of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. One of his aides was Jayne Carr, who would later marry Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. As a colleague, Jayne Thompson said, Zagel was badass, meticulous with the law and possessed an “encyclopedic memory.”

“He can sit down and write a legal argument and fill in the citations, including the page numbers, without pulling out a book,” she recalled for a 2010 Tribune profile.

Zagel eventually went to work in Thompson’s administration, first as director of the Department of Revenue and then as head of what was then known as the Department of Law Enforcement.

Zagel was appointed to the federal bench in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, and although his law enforcement background gave him a reputation for leaning towards the government’s point of view, he became widely regarded by members of the defense bar as predictable and fair.

As a jurist, he also enlightened the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which decides to issue warrants for the wiretapping of terrorism suspects.

Zagel had roles in two Hollywood films and broad interests ranging from jazz to target shooting with court security officers.

Under the stage name JS Block, Zagel also appeared in the 1989 film “Music Box,” about an alleged war criminal on trial in Chicago. Zagel, whose real-life middle name is Block, played a judge in the film. His courtroom scenes were filmed in the same criminal court building he once prowled as an assistant state’s attorney.

His final role as an actor was as the grieving son of a murder victim in Chicago writer David Mamet’s 1991 film, “Homicide.”

In his well-received 2002 novel “Money to Burn,” Zagel told the story of a federal judge who stages a daring heist at Chicago’s super-secure Federal Reserve Bank. The judge gets away with millions of dollars.

Among Zagel’s high-profile real-life cases was the 2007 Family Secrets trial, which ended with the conviction of five of Chicago Outfit’s top associates who had been indicted in a massive conspiracy charged with 18 murders. .

Zagel was tasked with handling a case with colorful lawyers in a circus atmosphere, and met with lawyers daily in order to maintain control both inside and outside the courtroom. And while Zagel always remained amiable, he didn’t put up with much.

In a telling example, Zagel told an attorney, Joseph Lopez, that he couldn’t write an Internet blog while the case was on trial.

The carnival atmosphere was repeated a few years later in the Blagojevich case, which featured a star defendant and a legal team with a flair for the dramatic.

Sentencing Blagojevich to 14 years in prison in 2011, Zagel delivered a series of memorable lines that have become part of the annals of Chicago’s political corruption cases.

“In the United States, we don’t govern at gunpoint much. We need voluntary and creative cooperation and participation to thrive as a civil society,” Zagel said. “It happens more easily when people trust the person at the top to do the right thing most of the time and, more importantly, to try to do it all the time. … When it’s the governor that goes wrong, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and it is not easy or quick to fix it.You have done this damage.

One of Zagel’s last high-profile moments on the bench came in August 2016, when, after a federal appeals court dismissed some of the conviction counts against Blagojevich on technical grounds, he sentenced the former governor to the same sentence of 14 years in prison. .

Zagel then said he realized the suffering of Blagojevich’s family and applauded him for being a model prisoner, but he noted that the former governor’s conduct in prison was not as big a factor as the wrongdoings he had committed during his tenure.

The judge also rejected the argument that the case against Blagojevich was weaker because of the five counts dismissed on appeal. Zagel said the governor engaged in a clear pattern of corruption that benefited him personally and politically.

“He sees himself as less morally culpable, but I don’t make such a clear moral distinction,” Zagel said. “As in many cases, political and personal gain were very much intertwined here.”


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