GREENSBORO – With the jury at the John Edwards trial set to begin deliberations for a seventh day on Tuesday, speculation grows that the 12 people charged with deciding the fate of the former presidential candidate may be deadlocked.
Edwards faces six felony charges in a case involving nearly $1 million provided by two wealthy political donors to help hide the Democrat’s pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.
To determine Edwards’ guilt or innocence, the jury must sift through notes from 17 days of testimony and review about 500 trial exhibits, many of them voluminous phone and financial records. They must not only determine whether the candidate knew about the secret payments, which he has denied, but whether he realized he was violating federal law by allowing them.
That requires the jury to navigate a web of laws so complicated that even campaign finance experts disagree on whether the money used in the cover-up qualify as political contributions, which were then limited to $2,300 per person. Although U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles said the issue appeared straightforward to her, the jury instructions took nearly an hour to read and left many on the jury looking dazed.
“This is a pretty complex chore,” said Kieran J. Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney who has attended nearly every day of the trial. “There’s a lot to digest and come to an agreement on. One full week of deliberations is nothing to hit the panic button on. But if it goes another week, that indicates the likelihood of a split verdict or hung jury.”
Federal law defines campaign contributions as money given with the intent of influencing the outcome of an election. But neither of the donors who gave the money testified about their thinking on the issue.
Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, a 101-year-old heiress, was deemed too frail to travel to court. Those involved in the scheme said she had no idea much of the $725,000 she funneled to an Edwards aide for a “personal expense” was being spent on concealing an extramarital affair.
Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who served as Edwards’ campaign finance chairman, paid for flights on private jets, luxury hotel rooms and a $20,000 rental mansion in California. He died of bone cancer in late 2008.
Edwards, a former trial lawyer, decided not to take the stand in his own defense. His mistress, Rielle Hunter, was not called to testify.
The jurors deliberate in a windowless conference room, their privacy protected by U.S. Marshals. Their lunch is catered inside.
The group of eight men and four women mostly come from middle-class backgrounds, including a retired fireman, a special education teacher, a plumber, a retired railroad engineer and two mechanics. There are also jurors with strong financial acumen, including a corporate vice president and a retired accountant.
High-profile juries that acquitted a defendant usually did so quickly.
It took less than a day last year for Florida jurors to find Casey Anthony not guilty of first-degree murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee. That was after 33 days of testimony, 400 pieces of evidence and 90 witnesses.
The jury that acquitted football star O.J. Simpson of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman, made their decision in less than four hours.
And while it is true deliberations lasting several days or even weeks often end in deadlocks, there are examples where juries took a long time to return a guilty verdict.
The jury at the first trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich deliberated 14 days before a mistrial was declared on 23 corruption counts, though they did convict him on one count of making false statements.
Undeterred, federal prosecutors tried Blagojevich again. During his second trial, it took jurors 10 days to convict him on 17 counts of corruption.
The judge at Edwards’ trial abruptly closed the courtroom Friday to talk to attorneys about an issue with a juror. She reopened the courtroom after 35 minutes, giving the public no details about what the problem was before sending everyone home for the long holiday weekend.
The jury’s behavior drew attention Thursday when the four alternates all wore canary-yellow shirts. On Friday, they all wore bright red shirts, as did two of the 12 jurors deliberating the case.
One of the alternates, a young woman, has also frequently exchanged smiles with Edwards and nodded enthusiastically during closing arguments last week as the former presidential candidate’s lawyer urged them to find his client not guilty.
Eagles can dismiss an alternate juror without affecting the trial. But if she dismisses one of the 12 deliberating the case and an alternate takes over, the discussions would have to start all over.
The judge said she would start court early Tuesday to talk about the issue further.
Steve Friedland, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Elon University School of Law, said those waiting for resolution should remain patient.
“Jury verdicts are not always like fast food, delivered neatly wrapped in short order,” he said. “Instead, verdicts are sometimes like a fine meal that takes a long time to prepare. That is what is occurring in the Edwards case, and the result may be all the better for it.”