Published: Jun 03, 2010 5:37 PM EDT
Updated: Jun 03, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

CHICAGO (AP) - A smiling and relaxed-looking Rod Blagojevich arrived at federal court Thursday for the start of his corruption trial, what the former Illinois governor says will be the beginning of the end of an 18-month ordeal.

He was with his wife, Patti, and stepped into a gantlet of about 30 waiting cameras and reporters. He hugged supporters and thanked them on his way into the courthouse.

"I feel great," Blagojevich said before walking over & shaking hands with several supporters. "The truth shall set you free," he told one well-wisher as he shook the man's hand.

The former governor denies scheming to profit from his power to fill President Barack Obama's former Senate seat. Jury selection was to start later in the day, and the federal courtroom is expected to be packed for one of the biggest political trials ever in the corruption-plagued state.

"We're here, we're ready to start and God willing we will prevail," Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky said. Outside court, one woman carried a placard saying, "Rod's not cuckoo. Rod's not guilty."

"We like him and he's innocent," said May Farley, 78, of Elmhurst. Prosecutors, though, see a chance to send a second straight Illinois governor to prison in one of the biggest political trials ever in this corruption-plagued state.

"This blows every other political story out of the newspapers and off the air," Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green said.

Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to 24 counts including racketeering, wire fraud, attempted extortion and bribery. He and his co-defendant brother -- 54-year-old Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich -- deny scheming to sell or trade the president's old Senate seat for personal gain. The former governor also is charged with plotting to turn his administration into a giant moneymaking operation with profits to be divided between himself and a circle of advisers and fundraisers after he left office.

The Democrat was impeached and ousted about seven weeks after his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest and has since pleaded his case to the public from radio to reality TV. It's the latest chapter in U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald's attack on corruption in a state where politics have long been awash in patronage and payoffs.

Blagojevich's predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is serving a 6½-year racketeering and fraud sentence. "The U.S. attorney is trying to bring about a sea change in the political culture of this state," says DePaul University law Professor Leonard Cavise.

If convicted, Blagojevich faces a maximum of 415 years in prison and fines totaling $6 million.

On Wednesday, attorneys close to the case said Blagojevich's defense has subpoenaed White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as a witness. The attorneys spoke on condition of anonymity because the subpoena had not been made public. If Emanuel did take the stand, he might be asked about what effort, if any, the White House made to get Blagojevich to appoint Obama's friend Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat.

Jarrett had been mentioned as a candidate but withdrew to become a presidential adviser. She also has been subpoenaed by the defense, a White House official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. Neither Jarrett nor Emanuel is accused of any wrongdoing.

Sorosky said he's not sure if Emanuel and Jarrett will testify, since he doesn't know who the government will call. But he said he thinks it's "very likely" that Patti Blagojevich will testify. Federal prosecutors have 500 hours of secretly recorded FBI wiretaps of Blagojevich and his associates.

But Blagojevich's attorneys have said that the recordings, if played in their entirety, would show he did not try to sell the Senate seat. They say he planned to award it to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan in exchange for a deal with her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, to get tax, health care and jobs legislation through the House. Prosecutors are expected to call that deal largely fiction.

Neither Madigan has been accused of any wrongdoing. Prosecutors have lined up numerous key witnesses to testify at what could be a four-month trial. Those include Blagojevich's former chiefs of staff John Harris and Alonzo "Lon" Monk. Monk, Blagojevich's law school roommate who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to solicit a bribe in the form of campaign contributions from a racetrack owner, was with the governor at the outset of his administration and is guaranteed to be asked about alleged efforts to use the office to generate profit.

Harris, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell the Senate seat, will surely be asked for full details. U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel said he plans to question up to 34 jurors a day until a jury is seated. Zagel denied a request from five news organizations to reverse his plan to keep the jury anonymous until after the trial. The media groups said the public has a right to know who is deciding the case. Those making the request are the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Associated Press, the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Broadcasters Association.