Local Politics

Judge again warns Edwards jury against improper discussions

Posted May 29, 2012 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated May 29, 2012 6:56 p.m. EDT

— The federal judge overseeing John Edwards' trial on campaign finance fraud charges admonished jurors for a second time Tuesday afternoon against discussing the case when not all 12 of them were present.

The eight-man, four-woman jury has deliberated for 39 hours over seven days since May 18 with no sign of an imminent verdict in the case.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles closed the courtroom to the public last Friday afternoon to discuss an undisclosed jury issue with prosecutors and defense attorneys. Before dismissing the jury for the weekend, she issued a strong warning to them not to discuss the case while walking to their cars or any other time they weren't all together in the jury room.

Eagles met with prosecutors and Edwards' attorneys early Tuesday regarding the issue, which apparently was resolved as the jurors resumed deliberations. Court officials said all records of the judge's private conversation with the attorneys had been sealed, so it's unclear whether the issue will ever be revealed.

The judge, however, again spoke to jurors Tuesday afternoon, going out of her way to invite them to notify her if anyone thought something had happened that could interfere with the deliberations.

"Small group discussions have the potential to cause division," Eagles said. "You act together, and so your discussions and deliberations should be together."

Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor who attended much of Edwards' trial, said the judge's instructions suggest that there are concerns that some jurors have been deliberating in twos or threes or have gotten information about the case from the outside.

"Fairness and interference were exactly her words, and they do give you pause that she’s concerned about it," Shanahan said. "By bringing it to the jurors' attention now and asking them to come forward, she does two things. One, she finds out if a juror feels so strongly about what may have happened that she needs to intervene, and could it mean either a replacement of a juror or a mistrial. Second to that, if they don’t come forward, then it’s a good indication from the jury that it is not a problem – that they can continue along – and that diminishes any possibility on appeal that it becomes an issue."

The government has 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 Edwards' pregnant mistress 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 and Edwards' one-time aide Andrew Young.

In their first four days of deliberations, jurors asked to review more than 20 exhibits, but all were related to payments that Mellon had routed through a Charlotte interior decorator to Young and his wife. They appeared to shift their attention to Baron for the first time last Thursday, asking for another 20 exhibits related to his payments.

Eagles then offered to send all 450-plus exhibits introduced during the nearly four weeks of testimony back to the jury room, and it's been unclear since then whether that has helped speed deliberations or simply bogged jurors down.

The judge and jury discussed potential scheduling conflicts in the coming weeks, including school graduations, which Shanahan said suggests the jury is a long way from a verdict.

"I do believe there's some division among this group," he said. "They haven't asked for any further instruction on the law, and most importantly, they haven't told the judge that they're deadlocked. So. they're still working, and you have to believe there's forward progress."