Judge James Zagel's courtroom took on an air of a dysfunctional family gathering this afternoon, as Sam Adam Jr.'s cross-examination of government witness Ali Ata devolved into a series of scoldings and apologies.
The conflict came to a head early. Just a few minutes in, Adam turned his questioning to a comment that Ata had made earlier that FBI agents had questioned him following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Adam seemed to be making the argument that Ata -- a "valued member of the Arab-American community" who "loves his country" -- had been wronged by the government before.
Prosecutor Carrie Hamilton objected and the judge sustained. But Adam persisted, tweaking the wording of the questions to try to get them past the prosecution's radar.
Finally, an animated Adam asked the witness, "You had nothing to do with 9/11, did you?"
Zagel abruptly halted questioning and sent the jury out of the room.
With spectators sitting on the edge of their seats, Zagel gave Adam a tongue-lashing for the judicial equivalent of running his mouth off.
"It would be nice if you stopped at the second reiteration," Zagel said flatly.
With the jury back in their seats, Adam brought the questioning around to two $25,000 contributions Ata made to the ex-governor. He asked the witness to define a "quid pro quo" -- repeatedly, despite objections that it's not the witness' place to make legal interpretations. Hamilton, clearly exasperated, leapt out of her seat again and again.
"Why do you do this?" Zagel eventually asked him. Adam looked surprised. "Ask him what he did. Don't ask him his opinion."
Adam bounced back and began asking if Ata had ever heard from Blagojevich's mouth that he would have to pay up if he wanted a state job. Again an argumentative Adam prompted more objections from Hamilton.
Zagel finally cut in.
"If the point you're trying to make is that your client never personally (spoke to the witness about fund-raising), and you think this jury does not understand this point by now, you should just give up all hope," Zagel said, prompting laughter in the room and among the jurors.
"The objection," he paused, "is sustained."