James B. Zagel, who as a federal judge sentenced former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich to a hefty 14 years in prison for corruption and who earlier helped prosecute Richard Speck in the grisly killings of eight Chicago student nurses, a mass murder that shocked the nation, died on July 15 at his home in Chicago. He was 82.
His death, from heart failure after a long illness, was announced by Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Judge Zagel, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, had served on that court since 1987. He assumed senior status in 2016.
Judge Zagel was widely regarded as a wise and witty Renaissance man who found time to write a potboiler novel and who not only served as a judge but also played one, in the 1989 movie thriller “The Music Box.” A District Court colleague, Judge Manish Shah, remarked in an email that Judge Zagel “could quote Ludwig Wittgenstein and Groucho Marx with an easy charm.”
As a judge, he gained wide attention presiding over the trial of former Governor Blagojevich.
After a jury deadlocked in 2010 on all but one charge in an earlier trial, Mr. Blagojevich, who had been impeached and removed from office, was convicted on 18 counts in a retrial in 2011. He was accused of corruption for leveraging his powers to enrich himself and a group of cronies through campaign contributions and other personal gains in exchange for favoring allies in policies regarding hospitals and a racetrack.
The prosecution’s case centered on allegations that Mr. Blagojevich had tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois that had been vacated by Barack Obama upon Mr. Obama’s election to president in 2008.
Technically, the crimes for which the governor was convicted could have resulted in life imprisonment, but the 14-year sentence imposed by Judge Zagel, though a surprise to many, was in fact only just short of what prosecutors had requested.
The sentence was viewed as a message to Illinois voters and politicians who had tolerated corruption for decades.
“The harm here is not measured in the value of property or money,” Judge Zagel said before passing sentence. “The harm is the erosion of public trust in government.”
After proclaiming for years that he was innocent, Mr. Blagojevichapologized to his family and to his Illinois constituents.
“I was the governor,” he said, “and I should have known better.”
He was released from prison in 2020 after President Donald J. Trump commuted his sentence.
Among hundreds of cases, Judge Zagel presided over the so-called Operation Family Secrets trial, which ended in 2007 with the convictions of five top associates of a mob organization called the Chicago Outfit on conspiracy charges involving more than a dozen murders. Judge Zagel sentenced one of the defendants, 71-year-old Frank Calabrese Sr., who was known as Frankie Breeze, to life in prison for what the judge described as “unspeakable” acts.
James Block Zagel was born on March 4, 1941, in Chicago. His father, Samuel, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who owned a furniture store. His mother was Ethel (Samuels) Zagel.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1962 and a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1965.
As an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County, Ill., from 1965 to 1969, Judge Zagel was part of a team that prosecuted Richard Speck, who was convicted in 1967 and sentenced to death in the killings of the student nurses. He had broken into their Chicago townhouse, bound them with strips of bedsheets and led them one by one into other rooms, where he raped one of the women and either strangled or stabbed — or both — all of them. He died in prison at 49 in 1991.
The Speck case helped establish Judge Zagel’s reputation as an expert in forensic science, psychology and the reconciliation of constitutional doctrine and criminal procedure.
On his appointment to the federal bench, he was director of the Illinois State Police, serving from 1980 to 1987. He was director of the state’s Department of Revenue in 1979. He sat on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2008 to 2015.
He and his first wife, Pam Zekman, an investigative reporter, divorced in 1975. He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Margaret Maxwell Zagel, a lawyer, who is known as Peggy.
Judge Zagel had his first taste of Hollywood — under the stage name J.S. Block — in “The Music Box,” directed by Costa-Gavras and starring Jessica Lange. Judge Zagel played a jurist presiding over a hearing to revoke the American citizenship of a man accused of war crimes in Hungary during World War II.
Again under the name J.S. Block, he played the grieving son of a murder victim in David Mamet’s film “Homicide” (1991).
In 2002, Judge Zagel published “Money to Burn,” a novel about a federal judge who concocts a daring robbery of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Kirkus Reviews called it “a deft, elegantly written tour de force.”