Rod Blagojevich's attorneys admitted Tuesday for the first time that the former Illinois governor is guilty of corruption, saying at his sentencing hearing that he accepts the verdicts against him but the prison term requested by prosecutors is too harsh.

Those comments are in stark contrast to Blagojevich's public statements, in which he adamantly maintained his innocence through two trials since his arrest three years ago.

Attorney Sheldon Sorosky told Judge James Zagel that it was illegal for Blagojevich to ask for a job for himself in exchange for his naming of a replacement for President Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.

"There's no doubt this is a crime to do this in relation to the Senate seat, we accept that," Sorosky said. "I am just saying that does not call for a 15- to 20-year jail" term.

Sorosky made the same argument when he talked about the other crimes for which the former governor was convicted — shaking down a racetrack executive and a hospital executive, as well as lying to the FBI.

But he said none of Blagojevich's actions merit the sentence recommended by prosecutors.

Blagojevich, who sat at the defence table in a dark pinstripe suit, was expected to address Zagel on Wednesday, the second day of the hearing. Legal experts have said he needs to display some remorse.

Sombre demeanour

Blagojevich's well-known jocular persona was not on display Tuesday.

Instead, Blagojevich was sombre and ill-at-ease during the proceedings, staring down at the floor, wringing his hands and pulling nervously at his fingers — pausing occasionally to sip on a plastic bottle of Cherry Coke.

But as defence attorney Aaron Goldstein began reading a letter to the judge from Blagojevich's oldest daughter, 15-year-old Amy, the former governor suddenly seemed to fight to maintain his composure, fidgeting with a pen, biting on his lip. An attorney turned to gently pat his shoulder.

'There is no question from his tone of voice that he was demanding. His role as leader is clearly shown by his actions.'—U.S. District Judge James Zagel

Zagel also seemed more engaged in what Goldstein was saying as he described Blagojevich — the father. Blagojevich's wife Patti began sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks. She dabbed at her reddened face with a tissue.

Patti Blagojevich closed her eyes tight, tears still rolling down her face, when Goldstein played a tape recording of a giddy Blagojevich calling his youngest daughter and putting on a high baby-like voice, saying, "Hey Annie!"

Zagel, who has said he'll pronounce a sentence Wednesday, said earlier that Blagojevich was clearly the ringleader of the schemes for which he was convicted, and lied about his actions on the witness stand.

In comments that could signal a lengthy prison sentence, Zagel made it clear that he did not believe a suggestion made by defence attorneys that Blagojevich was duped by aides and advisers.

"There is no question from his tone of voice that he was demanding," Zagel said of Blagojevich's comments on phone conversations secretly recorded by the FBI. "His role as leader is clearly shown by his actions."

Judging Blagojevich testimony

And in a harsh assessment of Blagojevich's performance on the witness stand, Zagel said the former governor was lying when he testified that he planned to appoint the state's attorney general to Obama's seat in a legal political deal.

"I think this is untrue," Zagel said. "I thought it was untrue when he said it and I think it is still untrue."

Goldstein pleaded with the judge not to impose a lengthy prison sentence on Blagojevich — not for his sake, but for his family. In an emotional few minutes before proceedings ended for the day, Goldstein said locking Blagojevich up for a long time would devastate his family.

Goldstein read a letter from Blagojevich's daughter, Amy, who wrote that she needs her father for all the things that will happen in her life, including graduation from high school, applying to college and when her heart gets broken. In another letter, Patti Blagojevich asked the judge to "please be merciful" and said the punishment her husband fears the most is not seeing his daughters grow up.

The impeached state executive-turned-reality TV star has good reason to feel anxious. If Zagel settles on a sentence of more than a decade, that would be one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a tradition of crooked politics.