CHICAGO - Rod Blagojevich, the ousted Illinois governor whose three-year battle against criminal charges became a national spectacle, was sentenced to 14 years in prison Wednesday. It was one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a history of crooked politics.

Among his 18 convictions is the charge that he tried to leverage his power to appoint someone to President Obama's vacated Senate seat in exchange for campaign cash or landing a high-paying job.

Judge James Zagel gave Blagojevich credit for taking responsibility for his actions, but said that didn't mitigate his crimes. Zagel also said Blagojevich did good things for people as governor, but was more concerned about using his powers for himself. The former governor admitted his crimes and apologized in court earlier in the day.

As the judge announced the sentence, which includes a $20,000 fine, Blagojevich hunched forward and his face appeared frozen. Minutes later, his wife, Patti Blagojevich, stood up and fell into her husband's arms. He pulled back to brush tears from her cheek, then rubbed her shoulders.

On his way out of the courthouse, Blagojevich said it was a time to be strong, to fight through adversity, and to be strong for his children. He said he and wife were heading home to speak to their two daughters, and then left without answering any questions.

But during the nearly 19 minutes that Blagojevich addressed Zagel, his children and what he has done to their lives dominated his plea for mercy.

Because of his crimes, "I have jeopardized my ability to protect my children," he told the judge. "My children have had to suffer. I've ruined their innocence."

The twice-elected Democrat received by far the harshest sentence among the four Illinois governors sent to prison in the last four decades. He is the second in a row to go to prison. His Republican predecessor, George Ryan, is serving 61/2 years. The other two got three years or less.

Blagojevich's sentencing came just days before his 55th birthday Saturday, and nearly three years to the day of his arrest at dawn on Dec. 9, 2008, when the startled governor asked one federal agent, "Is this a joke?" In a state where corruption has been commonplace, images of Blagojevich being led away in handcuffs still came as a shock.

At the sentencing Wednesday, the judge said he did not believe Blagojevich's contention, as his lawyers wrote in briefings, that his comments about the corruption schemes were simply "musings." Zagel said the jury concluded and he agreed that Blagojevich was engaged in actual schemes, and the undeniable leader of those schemes.

"The governor was not marched along this criminal path by his staff," Zagel said. "He marched them."

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 15 to 20 years, which Blagojevich's attorneys said was too harsh. The defense also presented appeals from Blagojevich's family, including letters from his wife and one of his two daughters.

But the judge made it clear early in the hearing that he believed Blagojevich had lied on the witness stand when he tried to explain his scheming for the Senate seat, and he did not believe defense suggestions that the former governor was duped by advisers.

Blagojevich was ordered to begin serving his sentence on Feb. 16. In white-collar cases, convicted felons are usually given at least a few weeks to report to prison while federal authorities select a suitable facility. Blagojevich is expected to appeal his conviction, but it is unlikely to affect when he reports to prison.

Most of the prisons where Blagojevich could go are outside Illinois. One is in Terre Haute, Ind., where Ryan is serving his sentence. In prison, Blagojevich will largely be cut off from the outside world. Visits by family are limited, Blagojevich will have to share a cell with other inmates, and he must work an eight-hour-a-day menial job at 12 cents an hour.

According to federal rules, felons must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence a judge imposes, meaning Blagojevich wouldn't be eligible for early release until he serves nearly 12 years.

Prosecutors have said Blagojevich misused the power of his office "from the very moment he became governor."

He was initially elected in 2002 on a platform of cleaning up Illinois politics in the midst of federal investigations that led to the prosecution and conviction of Ryan.

It took two trials for prosecutors to snare Blagojevich. His first ended deadlocked with jurors agreeing on just one of 24 counts - that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts.

Blagojevich clearly dreaded the idea of prison time.

Asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on that prospect, he answered: "No. I don't let myself go there."