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U.S. District Judge James Zagel, “Renaissance Man” Who Presided over Some of Chicago’s Biggest Lawsuits, Dies at 82

James Zagel, the former Chief of the Illinois State Police who spent years leading former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s corruption trial, the groundbreaking Family Secrets mafia trial and many other of the area’s biggest cases, died Saturday. night after a long illness, court officials said. He turned 82.

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

“Judge James Zagel was not only a much admired federal judge; he played one in the movie,” U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer wrote in a statement. “Anyone who knew him could see why: he was good looking and he really fulfilled the role, 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 art, music and literature, and “a man of elegance and charm.”

“And he was a dear friend of the attorneys and law enforcement officers he worked with for many years, his attorneys and especially his fellow judges, who miss him dearly,” Pallmeyer 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 release.

Funeral arrangements were pending Sunday morning.

Born in Chicago in 1941, James Block Zagel used to walk to Chicago Bears games at Wrigley Field from his family’s apartment in Lakeview as a child, according to the release. He played tennis for the University of Chicago, studied philosophy, and received a master’s degree in 1962.

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After graduating from Harvard Law School, Zagel joined the Cook County state attorney’s office in 1965 where he helped secure the conviction of Richard Speck, the notorious murderer of eight student nurses on the city’s southeast side .

From 1970 to 1977, Zagel headed the criminal division of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. One of his assistants was Jayne Carr, who would later marry Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. Like a colleague, said Jayne Thompson, Zagel was a fast-driving, scrupulous with the law and possessed an “encyclopedic memory.”

“He can sit down and write a legal plea 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 by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, and while his background in law enforcement has given him a reputation for leaning towards the government’s position, he was widely regarded by members of the defense bar as predictable and honest.

As a lawyer, he also worked on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which decides whether to issue warrants for the electronic wiretapping of terrorist suspects.

Zagel had roles in two Hollywood movies and broad interests ranging from jazz to shootings with security guards.

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

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

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

One of Zagel’s high-profile cases in real life was the 2007 Family Secrets trial, which ended with the conviction of five top Chicago Outfit associates charged with a broad conspiracy responsible for 18 murders.

Zagel was assigned to manage a case with colorful lawyers in a circus-like atmosphere, meeting with lawyers on a daily basis to maintain control both inside and outside the courtroom. And although Zagel always remained handsome, he didn’t endure much.

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

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.

In sentencing Blagojevich to 14 years in prison in 2011, Zagel delivered a series of memorable lines that now rank among the annals of Chicago political corruption cases.

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“In the United States, we don’t often rule at gunpoint. We need willing and creative collaboration and participation to thrive as a civil society,” said Zagel. “This happens most 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. … If it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and misshapen and not easily or quickly repaired. You did that damage.’

One of Zagel’s last high-profile moments on the bench was in August 2016, when, after a federal appeals court overturned some convictions against Blagojevich on technical grounds, he resented the former governor to the same 14-year prison sentence. .

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 behavior in prison was not as big a factor as the misconduct he had committed. during his term of office.

The judge also rejected the argument that the case against Blagojevich was weaker due to the five charges 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 guilty, but I don’t make such a clear moral distinction,” Zagel said. “As in many cases, political and personal benefits were very mixed here.”

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