Commentary

Edwards trial: In the end, the closer was mute

rchristensen@newsobserver.com May 18, 2012 

— During the 1980s and 1990s, there was no better courtroom closer in North Carolina than John Edwards.

Lawyers would pack the court to watch Edwards practice his trade, as they did in January 1997 when Edwards delivered his closing argument in a $31 million lawsuit involving a Cary swimming pool.

All that morning, Wake County court clerk Pam Bunche took phone calls from lawyers asking the same question: “Has he started yet?”

Yes, Bunche replied, but don’t bother to come, because there is no room. The courtroom’s benches were packed with lawyers. More lawyers lined the walls, and other lawyers peeked through the windows.

On Thursday, Edwards once again drew a crowd at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, but this time it was reporters and TV producers from around the country, not his fellow lawyers, who stood for hours waiting for a courtroom seat.

For a brief moment, it looked as though Edwards – older now and walking awkwardly with a stiff back – was ready to once again deliver the closing, as he stood at the defense table.

But he soon sat down. A man who is the subject of a criminal trial for campaign-finance law violations does not deliver his own closing.

That was left to his defense attorney. Abbe Lowell, a big-time D.C. lawyer with a reputation for defending Democrats in trouble, including Bill Clinton, former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and Dan Rostenkowski, the Chicago pol who once ran the House Ways and Means Committee. He offered a defense that a man would not want to deliver on his own behalf.

Lowell’s defense, in a nutshell, was this: Edwards was a cad, but not a crook.

“This is a case where you define a difference between committing a wrong and committing a crime,” he told the jury.

“If what John did was a federal crime, we better build a lot more federal courtrooms and a lot more jails.”

Edwards sat stone-faced as he was described by his lawyer as a bad husband who cheated on his dying wife, and then lied to the world about the affair and whether he fathered a child with his mistress. Lowell said he will serve “a life sentence” for those sins.

As his sins were laid out, his elderly parents and his daughter – once so proud of him as he was elected to the U.S. Senate and ran twice for the presidency – sat behind him and listened in sorrowful silence.

Not only did Edwards not close, but the jury did not hear Edwards testify.

Edwards was always good before juries. In 1996, Lawyers Weekly USA named him one of the nation’s eight best attorneys. He was articulate, quick on his feet, unpretentious, and, with his youthful good looks, had a big old smile. He would often test-drive his cases before focus groups to make sure he would have the right argument.

“The best test of a man’s sincerity,” Rockingham lawyer Richard Buckner once remarked about Edwards, “is you don’t fool jury after jury. Jurors watch you like a hawk. You can’t fool country folks.”

But the Edwards of the 1980s and the 1990s is not the Edwards of today. There has been too much scandal and, if the polls are to be believed, Edwards is now among the most unpopular men in America.

Putting him on the stand could have been risky.

During the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, Edwards dazzled during the closing Senate debate.

“Last night, I think we all saw a brilliant statement by Sen. Edwards,” Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon said at the time. “I think we saw firsthand why he has made so much money talking to jurors.”

But when his own liberty was on the line, the great closer was mute.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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