Edwards trial brings minor media circus to Greensboro

mquillin@newsobserver.com May 11, 2012 

— It’s a big week for spectacle in this Piedmont town: the Greensboro Youth Council’s annual carnival is set up in the coliseum parking lot, and a few miles away, there’s a minor media circus around the federal courthouse where former Sen. John Edwards is on trial.

Only one has an actual roller coaster, but both have their ups and downs.

“Overall, I think it’s been a very good thing. Certainly for the local economy, it’s been very good,” said Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of downtown Greensboro Inc., an economic development group.

While some crimes can seem to taint a whole community, neither the misdeeds to which Edwards has admitted nor the crimes with which he is charged are alleged to have happened in Greensboro. The trial is here because Edwards lives in Orange County in the federal court’s Middle District, which has its main office in Greensboro.

On television news broadcasts and in photos published around the world, the city is mostly just a tidy backdrop for the drama that is U.S. vs. John Edwards.

In his eight years as clerk of court, John Brubaker has never seen another case in Greensboro that attracted this much attention.

“I really had no idea what to expect,” he said, in terms of how many people would want to attend the proceedings. With spaces reserved for witnesses, court officials and Edwards family members, there are only about 60 open seats in the courtroom for press and other members of the public. A few days this week, Brubaker opened a second courtroom where an overflow crowd could follow the events.

Dozens of news organizations have dropped in on the trial or settled in for the long haul, expected to be about six weeks, with reporters and photographers developing daily routines. The courthouse opens at 7:30 a.m., and because space is limited, reporters who want a seat in Courtroom 1 arrive ahead of the judge’s 9:30 a.m. starting time and wait for the doors to open.

Because they aren’t allowed to take any electronic devices into the courtroom, writers have found creative ways to stash their phones and laptop computers nearby so they can file stories during breaks in the trial. Along with a phalanx of a dozen TV satellite trucks, some have rented metered parking spaces on West Market Street on the block with the courthouse, which they keep all day.

Others climb the stairs into the lobby of West Market Street United Methodist Church, next door to the courthouse, and ask the desk attendant to hold their items.

NBC television went further and negotiated with the church to rent a parking space and a room inside where crews can conduct on-camera interviews with legal analysts and others.

Bill Ellison, pastor of pastoral care, said the rent the network is paying will run into the thousands of dollars by the time the trial ends, money the church will give to Greensboro Urban Ministry, a charity that helps the homeless.

Photographers, who aren’t allowed into the courtroom, spend their days at “Camp Edwards,” shielded from last week’s pounding sun and this week’s hammering rain by two portable canopies that flank the courthouse’s front door. They, too, arrive early, jockeying for position behind cordons to get shots of Edwards and his family members arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon.

A few were reassigned to other stories this week when it became clear Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, would not testify for the prosecution.

Neal Gettinger, a Raleigh-based freelancer who is working the event for NBC’s “Today” show, has covered bigger trials, including that of New York mob boss John Gotti in 1992.

Those media hordes might have been larger, Gettinger said, “but not as well behaved.”

Early on, photographers and U.S. marshals agreed on terms that would allow the photographers to do their jobs without interfering with courthouse comings and goings. As he always does, Gettinger remained after court had recessed Thursday to help take down the tents and make sure no errant coffee cups, newspaper pages or sandwich wrappers littered the stone-block sidewalk.

The journalists, lawyers and others in the case are consuming plenty of locally made food and drink. The defense and prosecution teams generally send out for lunch, while news crews favor a couple of nearby sandwich shops and a place a block and a half away called Stumble Stilskins.

“We’re probably up 25 to 30 percent” over normal lunchtime receipts, said owner Trevor Austin, who sometimes unplugs the televisions at journalists’ tables so they can recharge their computers and mobile phones.

Austin has been reading about the case and understands the legal issues at its heart, but has not been tempted to vie for a seat to watch the proceedings in person.

“The only interest I have in it,” he said, “is how it brings in business.”

Edwards is said to be staying in town during the trial, but the media have not tried to track him down at his hotel. During pretrial hearings, staff at the Methodist church would sometimes glimpse Edwards and his attorneys walking up the sidewalk toward the courthouse and run to the window to get a better look.

Ellison, the pastor, said they did so for the same reasons the press have been reporting on the story and the public has been following it.

“It reminds us all of our humanity,” he said. “No matter how powerful or how privileged or how famous we may be, we all share some of the same foibles and weaknesses.”

John Edwards, he said, “is just a person, just like the rest of us.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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