CHICAGO — With years of freedom hanging in the balance, disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday gets his final shot at trying to persuade a federal judge not to send him away for a lengthy prison term.

Blagojevich was expected to address Judge James Zagel on what’s shaped up as the climactic second day of his sentencing hearing. Shortly after he speaks, Judge James Zagel is expected to announce just how long the 54-year-old will spend behind bars for 18 corruption counts that include his attempt to auction off President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.

A prosecutor also will have an opportunity to make a brief pitch to Zagel about why he thinks Blagojevich should go to prison for up to 20 years.

Nearly three years to the day since Blagojevich’s arrest while still in office, the sentencing hearing Tuesday featured an admission by Blagojevich’s attorneys that he was, in fact, guilty of public corruption. For years, the former governor and his team had strenuously avoided acknowledging that.

But earlier Tuesday, Zagel seemed to signal he may be ready to impose a stiff prison sentence, telling the courtroom he thought Blagojevich lied when he testified on the stand at his retrial that he never sought to sell or trade the Senate seat.

One unknown before this week’s hearing began was whether defense lawyers and Blagojevich intended to strike a conciliatory tone or continue to sound defiant, an approach legal observers widely agreed would be a monumental mistake.

The defense admission of guilt came as something of a surprise — just days after defense filings declared Blagojevich’s innocence.

While attorney Sheldon Sorosky told Zagel Tuesday Blagojevich committed the crimes, he insisted that none justified anywhere close to the 15- to 20-year prison term prosecutors wanted.

Otherwise known for his jocular personality, the impeached governor-turned-reality TV star cut a somber figure Tuesday. He pulled nervously at his fingers as attorneys spoke, pausing occasionally to sip on a plastic bottle of Cherry Coke.

In an emotional few minutes before proceedings ended Tuesday, defense attorney Aaron Goldstein said locking Blagojevich up for a long time would devastate his wife and two school-age daughters.

When Goldstein began reading a letter from Blagojevich’s oldest daughter, 15-year-old Amy, asking the judge not to lock her father up, Blagojevich seemed to fight to maintain his composure, biting on his lip.

In another letter, Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, asked Zagel to “please be merciful.” She began sobbing when Goldstein played a recording of a giddy Blagojevich calling his younger daughter, who is now 8, and putting on a baby voice, saying “Hey Annie!”

Prosecutors have said Blagojevich hasn’t previously displayed any remorse and has thumbed his nose at the justice system. But Blagojevich’s attorneys said he has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin — proposing a term of no more than a few years.

Blagojevich’s sentencing comes just days before his 55th birthday and three years to the week of his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest. The jury deadlocked in his first trial, agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery.

Among the court attendees Tuesday were more than a dozen jurors from Blagojevich’s trials, including both foremen. Several said they would attend Wednesday also.

After sentencing, Zagel will likely give Blagojevich at least weeks before he must report to prison. Once there, the man heard scoffing on FBI wiretaps about earning a low six-figure salary would have to take a prison job — possibly scrubbing toilets — at just 12 cents an hour.