NEW ORLEANS — After seven days of jury deliberation, the conspiracy and racketeering case against Gov. Edwin W. Edwards and four others ended in a mistrial Wednesday, with the jury overwhelmingly favoring acquittal.
Edwards immediately claimed vindication and the prosecutor sharply attacked Louisiana for turning its back on corruption.
"This is the sweet by and by," said Edwards, adding that he would not only finish out this term but be a candidate for a fourth.
But U.S. Atty. John Volz, standing on the steps of the federal courthouse only minutes after the mistrial was announced, said the decision not to convict the governor and his business associates reflected on the permissiveness of all the citizens of Louisiana.
"The facts in the case were not in dispute," he said. "The question is, are the citizens of the state ready to change. Apparently they aren't."
Then it was Edwards' turn. At a press conference less than two hours later, he called Volz' remarks "disgraceful."
"Today, disappointed by the result, he now lashes out at the people of the state," Edwards said. "On behalf of the jurors, I resent it and I think he owes an apology to the people of Louisiana."
The hung jury ended a 14-week marathon trial in which Volz attempted to prove that Edwards and his associates used their influence to illegally obtain state hospital and nursing home certificates, which were then sold to major hospital corporations for $10 million. Edwards himself was accused of pocketing $1.9 million in the deals, which were carried out while he was out of public office.
But most of the jurors thought Edwards was innocent, and the votes for acquittal on each of the 50 counts against him were either 11 to 1 or 10 to 2. At least nine of the jurors also voted to acquit the governor's brother, Marion Edwards; hospital consultants Ronald Falgout and James Wyllie, and Shreveport businessman Gus Mijalis.
U.S. District Judge Marcel Livaudais accepted the motion for a mistrial after the six-man, six-woman jury sent him a note Wednesday saying that even a review of selected trial testimony would not bring about a unanimous verdict.
Livaudais will rule Jan. 15 on a motion by the defense team for a directed verdict of acquittal for the five defendants. Three other defendants originally charged were dismissed by Livaudais for lack of evidence earlier in the trial.
The governor, Louisiana's most colorful and controversial figure, lost no time in claiming that the lopsided vote was his vindication.
"How sweet it is," Edwards said. "I'm going to be a governor for the rest of the term. I will be a candidate for governor."
Edwards, a dapper man who fueled his own image as a rake and big-time gambler, is the only governor in Louisiana history to be elected to three terms. He was first elected in 1971 and served until 1980. He sat out the next campaign because Louisiana law bars a governor from serving three terms in a row, but he was elected again in 1983.
Edwards was the seventh governor in U.S. history to be indicted. By his own count, he was the target of 13 federal investigations, ranging from the sale of state offices to a $10,000 gift his wife received from Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park in 1971.
As Edwards took the podium for a press conference, his family and friends--including those who had been on trial with him--stood and applauded under the hot television lights.
"I have just won the 16th and most important election of my life and by the greatest majority ever," he said.
"Every decision made in this process was in favor of the defendants. The government won nothing."
One of his lawyers, Camille Gravel, had made similar remarks immediately after the trial concluded.
"This case began with eight defendants and 355 counts and not a single defendant has been found guilty of a single count," he said.
On Tuesday, Volz had said flatly that if the trial ended in a hung jury, he would retry the case. But on Wednesday, he hedged that, saying he would confer with defense lawyers before making a decision. Then he gave the jurors a verbal tongue lashing.
"We spent more than 13 weeks trying to show the jury and the people of this state what was going on. Apparently, it fell on deaf ears," he said.
"I've heard so many cynics say 'You'll never get a conviction in Louisiana on charges like that.' I said 'Yes you can. The state is ready for something like that.' Apparently, I was wrong, or I wasn't as right as I thought I was."
Volz, who before Wednesday had never lost a federal case, said the mistrial would make him take a much harder look before expending government resources for other similar prosecutions of alleged wrongdoing.
James Neal, the primary lawyer for Edwards, then took the microphone and paid Volz and his staff a backhanded compliment.
"I think the prosecution got the most out of nothing than any case I've ever seen," he said.
Edwards, at his own press conference, said the trial proved an indictment could be brought when there is no basis for it and said the last weeks were "part of the price you pay for being in the governor's office at the wrong time."
He said the trial was a result of Volz' "twisted mind."
"I can't really be offended by anything a person of that mentality might do," said Edwards.
The governor, who termed the hung jury as an opportunity for a "fresh start", said he would call a special session of the state legislature to tackle Louisiana's serious economic problems.