Local Politics

Specter of hung jury hangs over Edwards case

Posted May 22, 2012 12:41 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2012 7:03 p.m. EDT

— As jurors finished a third day of deliberations Tuesday in the John Edwards campaign finance case without a decision, observers began to speculate on the possibility of a divided jury never reaching a verdict.

Prosecutors have accused Edwards, a former U.S. senator and two-time Democratic presidential candidate, of masterminding a scheme to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from Virginia heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron to help hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House in 2008.

Defense attorneys argued Edwards had little direct knowledge of the cover-up, which they say was directed by Baron, his campaign finance chairman, and Edwards' one-time aide Andrew Young.

Deliberations began Friday morning and had reached 16 hours total by the end of Tuesday. The only questions the jury has sent to U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles regard testimony and exhibits linked to money from Mellon.

The two charges involving Mellon's money are the first two of the six charges Edwards faces listed on the jury's verdict sheet. It's unclear whether jurors have considered any of the other charges.

"It's starting feel a little more like a marathon than a sprint," said Raleigh lawyer Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor who attended most of the trial. "Either they're the most thorough, meticulous, I'm-going-to-look-at-every-document jurors ever to come down the pike, or there's a little bit of dissension among the group."

Shanahan said the details of Edwards' affair with Hunter and their illegitimate child might be clouding the campaign finance issue for some jurors.

"There was much more (testimony) about the salacious details of the affair, and in particular of lying to cover up the affair. It's just sort of hard for an average person to think about John Edwards and not think about those things," he said. "When they did start to talk about campaign finance law (during the trial), it almost put you to sleep. It's just like looking at a tax return."

Federal court juries have deliberated for weeks in other high-profile cases, Shanahan said, so it's too early to "push the panic button" over a hung jury in the Edwards case.

The verdicts on each of the charges must be unanimous for either guilty or innocent, he noted, and Eagles will urge jurors to come to as much agreement as possible to avoid going through another trial.

"She will encourage them. She will cajole them. She will talk with them to try to do everything they can to reach a verdict," he said.

Edwards faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all six campaign finance corruption charges.

Because he has no prior criminal history, Edwards would likely face no more than four or five years behind bars under federal sentencing guidelines if convicted, Shanahan said.