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Blagojevich trial a 'can't miss' event

By Patrice Fletcher, NBC News Producer

Chicago boasts about 250 theaters and a rich dramatic tradition. But today, the biggest show in town can be found not in a theater, but in a courtroom.

The corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his brother and co-defendant, Robert, has developed a devoted following. Curious spectators have come from all over the city and state to observe this course in "Politics and the Justice System 101." 

Photo by AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich shakes hands with a supporter, Art Hamill, Chicago fireman, upon his arrival at the Federal Court building, Tuesday, July 20, 2010, as his wife Patti, right, enters the building.

"This is history being made," said Scott McCoy, former mayor of Pontiac, Ill. "I couldn't miss it."

By 5 a.m. Tuesday, about 50 would-be spectators had lined up outside the Dirksen Federal building in Chicago’s Loop, trying to score one of the 32 courtroom seats available to the public each day or to catch a glimpse of the man himself.

"Good morning, nice to see you. God bless you," Rod Blagojevich said as he entered court Tuesday morning. It’s his daily mantra on the way into and out of the building, as he shakes every hand he can grab.

Both Blagojevich brothers have pleaded not guilty to taking part in a scheme to sell or trade the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama when he was elected in 2008.

In addition, Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to a wire fraud charge that he was involved in pressuring two businessmen illegally for campaign funds. And Rod Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to plotting to launch a racketeering operation in the governor's office.

The opinions of would-be spectators on their former governor’s case are varied.  

"This is one exceptional case," said George Calvino, a young African-American man considering law school. "I'm not sure whether Blagojevich will walk or not."

"We totally support him and we think it’s all talk, no action, and a big waste of taxpayer money," said Patty Farley, a middle-aged Chicago woman.

"This guy ran the state into the ground. I think, overall, this will change politics in the state a little bit, wake people up a little bit," said McCoy, the former Pontiac mayor.

Nonetheless, McCoy added, "I'll be happy when this is over…This is an embarrassment for the state."

At least one spectator was there to watch the performance of the prosecutors as much as that of the former governor.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who gained national attention as the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation into the Valerie Plame Affair, spent about 30 minutes in the overflow courtroom, where reporters and the public can hear the audio of the proceedings.

He was listening to one of his deputies cross-examine Robert Blagojevich and taking notes.