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John Edwards trial judge meets with attorneys on 'juror matter'

The panel is sent home for the Memorial Day weekend after six days of deliberations with no verdict in the campaign finance case.

May 25, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • John Edwards arrives at federal court in Greensboro, N.C., where he is being tried on charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions to cover up an extramarital affair. The jury has yet to reach a verdict after six days of deliberations.
John Edwards arrives at federal court in Greensboro, N.C., where he is being… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The federal judge in the John Edwards trial closed her courtroom Friday afternoon to deal with what she called a "juror matter," and then sent the jury home for the Memorial Day weekend with no verdict reached.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles did not disclose what she and lawyers for both sides discussed during the 35 minutes the courtroom was closed to reporters and spectators. Jurors will return for a seventh day of deliberations Tuesday morning.

Before deliberations began on May 18, the jury foreman, a financial consultant, told the judge that he might have an upcoming scheduling conflict. On Friday, Eagles told lawyers for both sides to arrive early Tuesday in case she needs to discuss a juror matter with them.

As she does at the close of each session, Eagles reminded jurors not to discuss the case with anyone — even fellow jurors — outside the jury room, and to avoid all media reports about the trial.

The jury of eight men and four women must decide whether $925,000 in payments from two wealthy patrons were illegal campaign contributions during Edwards' failed race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Edwards contends the payments were private gifts not directly related to the campaign.

After a sixth day of deliberations, it was not possible to determine whether the jury was divided over guilt versus acquittal, or merely being thorough and meticulous. The longer deliberations drag on, the greater the likelihood of a split verdict or, if disagreements cannot be resolved, a hung jury.

Jurors have asked to review more than 60 trial exhibits focusing on payments made to hide Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter, whom he had hired as a campaign videographer. The jury has met for about 34 hours over six days, after having listened to 31 witnesses and examined hundreds of exhibits during the monthlong trial.

Jurors troop in and out of the wood-paneled courtroom a couple of times a day, a collection of ordinary citizens in jeans, slacks and summer dresses. Some looked weary Friday. Others appeared restless. The faces of one or two jurors suggested mild annoyance.

Edwards, 58, unfailingly neat and trim in a dark suit, has studied jurors closely during their brief courtroom appearances over the past week, appraising their demeanor from his regular seat at the defense table.

The former U.S. senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee is charged with six counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted and sentenced to maximum penalties.

Jurors' requests for exhibits this week indicate they have plowed through the first two counts, which involve $725,000 in checks from billionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, an ardent Edwards supporter. Jurors now appear to be finishing up deliberations over the next two counts, involving payments from the late Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who was Edwards' national finance chairman.

Prosecutors say Edwards orchestrated the payments to cover up the affair and prevent his campaign from collapsing in scandal. The defense says the payments were intended to hide the affair from Edwards' wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who had grown increasingly suspicious of her husband.

The other two counts against Edwards accuse him of causing his campaign to file false finance reports and conspiring to accept and conceal illegal contributions through "trick, scheme or device."

The jurors must reach a unanimous decision on each count to convict. Eagles has instructed them that prosecutors don't have to prove that the sole purpose of the payments was to influence the election — only that there was a "real purpose or an intended purpose" to do so.

However, Eagles also told the jurors: "If the donor would have made the gift or payment notwithstanding the election, it does not become a contribution merely because the gift or payment might have some impact on the election."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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