Picking jury in Edwards case 'acquired art' for prosecutors, defense
Posted April 17, 2012 5:03 p.m. EDT
Updated April 17, 2012 7:25 p.m. EDT
GREENSBORO, N.C. — A federal judge on Tuesday questioned two dozen potential jurors in the trial of John Edwards while prosecutors and defense attorneys tried to gauge who would best serve their interests in determining the former presidential candidate's guilt or innocence.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to secret payments from wealthy campaign donors used to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House in 2008.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles disqualified 56 of 185 potential jurors on Monday based on their responses to written questionnaires given to them last week. Most of those dismissed said they had already made up their minds in the case, while others were excused for health or personal reasons or because serving on a six-week trial would be an economic hardship.
Eagles addressed the remaining members of the jury pool in groups of 12 on Tuesday, asking them general questions about the case, such as their feelings about lawyers, politicians and people who have affairs, to determine whether they could be impartial.
Former federal prosecutor Kieran Shanahan said it's "an acquired art" for attorneys in such cases to be able to select jurors sympathetic to their side.
"They observe the way jurors are dressed, the way they react – are they forthcoming to the judge – but they are pretty much observers in this process rather than direct participants," Shanahan said. "These jurors are revealing little pieces about themselves – their background, their history."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have already spent several days combing through the questionnaires for clues to how each juror might lean in the case, he said, and they add their in-person analysis during Eagles' questioning to that.
"If you're the defense, you're looking for jurors who can be sympathetic, who may say, 'enough is enough,' who wouldn't necessarily walk in lock-step with the government," he said. "If you're the federal prosecutor, you're looking for jurors who can follow instructions, who generally have a background of complying with the law."
Edwards' parents and elder daughter Cate have been accompanying him to the courthouse daily since jury selection started last week. Shanahan said the family support "sends a subliminal message" favoring the defense to prospective jurors.
"Everything that goes on in this courtroom is meant to influence or persuade in some manner," he said.
Eagles determined 17 of the 24 jurors questioned Tuesday were qualified for the jury. The attorneys on both sides will pick the 12 jurors and four alternates next Monday before testimony begins in the trial.
Edwards' national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and campaign donor Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, an heiress and socialite who is now 101 years old, gave nearly $1 million combined for Hunter's medical care and to pay for flights and accommodations for her during the campaign. Both had already given Edwards' campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by federal law.
Edwards maintains the money for Hunter was personal gifts and not contributions to his campaign.