Instructions may complicate Edwards jury’s task

Observers: Eagles’ specific words are key 

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 24, 2012 

— If the jury tasked with deciding the fate of John Edwards is following the judge’s direction, only the jury’s eight men and four women know what their deliberations have focused on for the past four days.

Judge Catherine Eagles has told them since the start of the trial not to talk about the case with anyone else and to limit their discussion to inside the private jury deliberation room.

While that direction seems simple enough, the 45 pages of instructions that Eagles handed to the jury on Friday as they set off to finally discuss the case are not as cut and dried.

The judge’s instructions, the product of much open debate among prosecutors and defense attorneys before the case went to the jury, give a wide berth for jurors to define among themselves whether $925,000 given by two billionaire supporters was provided for the “purpose to influence the election.”

The jury was not privy to the impassioned courtroom dispute among the lawyers over what the law requires.

Defense attorneys contended that jurors would have to find the payments were given for “the sole reason” of influencing the election. Prosecutors argued it only had to be one of the reasons.

The judge went with the following wording:

“The government does not have to prove that the sole or only purpose of the money was to influence the election. People rarely act with a single purpose in mind. On the other hand, 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. Nor does it become a contribution just because the donor knew it might have some influence on the election and found that acceptable, if the donor’s real purpose was personal or otherwise unrelated to the election.”

In other words, Eagles continued, the government has to prove the supporters “had a real purpose or an intended purpose to influence an election in making the gift or payment.”

Between ‘a’ and ‘the’

Steve Friedland, a former federal prosecutor and an Elon University law school professor who was inside the courtroom for most of the trial, said the judge sided with prosecutors in drafting that portion of her instructions. By telling jurors that they should weigh whether the gifts “had a real purpose” rather than “had the real purpose,” the judge allowed for a nuanced rather than explicit test of whether the gifts were covered by campaign-finance law.

“That’s a key issue in this case now and if he’s convicted,” Friedland said. The law, he pointed out, uses the word “the.”

Friedland said the change makes the law less clear for jurors. “People like black-and-white, and these jury instructions have shades of gray when it comes to the contribution question.”

Friedland said he did not think it was unusual for the jury to still be deliberating, given that testimony lasted almost four weeks.

The first request from the jury was for office supplies and a flip chart, an indication that there would be much charting and mapping out evidence.

The jury has requested to see letters, notes and other evidence related to the testimony about the $725,000 in checks that Rachel “Bunny” Mellon issued to Bryan Huffman, an interior decorator in Monroe. Huffman would endorse them and then send them to Andrew Young, Edwards’ former political aide, who was a key witness for the prosecutors.

Young’s wife, Cheri, then endorsed the checks, using her maiden name, and deposited the money in private bank accounts that she and her husband used.

The defense team contends that most of the money stayed with the Youngs, that Edwards never saw a dime of it, and that Rielle Hunter, his mistress, only got a small percentage of the money.

“We do know they’re at least walking the Bunny trail,” Friedland said of the jury. “They’re obviously spending time on it.”

Hampton Dellinger, a Triangle-based lawyer who also has been at the trial most days, said a judge’s instructions and the verdict sheet handed to a jury can “make a huge difference” in the verdict reached.

“The jury instructions are clearly the result of cutting and pasting and compromises, and they highlight how complex and confusing federal election law is and how difficult it is for the jury to decide whether John Edwards had the requisite criminal intent,” Dellinger said.

The jurors sought no new evidence on Wednesday.

The panel left about 15 minutes earlier than they usually do because one juror had an issue to deal with outside the federal courthouse.

A break for baseball

Edwards has been at the courthouse each day since the deliberations began with his parents and his eldest daughter, Cate. He comes in when the judge responds to jury questions or when they go to lunch or leave for the day.

On Wednesday, though, with the ACC baseball tournament being played just a short walk from the downtown courthouse, Edwards, a 1974 graduate of N.C. State University and a 1977 UNC-Chapel Hill law school graduate, stepped out to watch a ballgame.

The courtroom has been open for media and a few spectators.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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