Commentary

Saunders: If John Edwards is your lawyer, does it help or hurt?

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 14, 2014 

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Former U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards is back in the courtroom as a lawyer again. He is seen outside the Pitt County Courthouse in Greenville where he is working on a personal injury case on April 11, 2014.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Social scientists – OK, maybe just I – call it the “Johnnie Cochran Phenomenon.”

After attorney Cochran helped O.J. Simpson become the first person in the world to skate on a murder charge – I know: He really wasn’t, but you’d have thought he was the first person to get away with murder, judging by the vituperation that resulted – Cochran became even more hated than his ex-jock client.

Whatever you call that phenomenon, John Edwards is now being beat upside the head with it.

With Edwards back in the courtroom after his flirtation with politics was derailed by his flirtation with a woman who was not his wife, he is being subjected to a similar level of anger.

The former senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate was back in the courtroom last week representing a family seeking compensation for their son’s brain injury.

Back to the future

Cases such as this one made Edwards rich and famous before he ran for office.

The only thing missing when he returned back to the future – OK, back to a Pitt County courtroom last week to help select a jury in this latest trial – was the silver DeLorean with the winged doors.

The same way I hated that movie, “Back to the Future” – especially the part where Michael J. Fox invents rock ’n’ roll – is the way a lot of people hate Edwards. Why, you’d think, after reading some of the comments posted online, that Edwards had cheated on them personally when he succumbed to Rielle Hunter’s blatant street-corner come-on outside New York’s hot-sheet Regency Hotel.

Psst: He didn’t. How one feels about Edwards may say more about the feeler – you – than it does about the feelee – him. Most of the comments I’ve seen were personal jibes, but one reader expressed what I consider a legitimate gripe: By taking himself out of the game with his wanton, unbridled behavior, Edwards removed from the political discussion any candidate in 2008 who was even talking about economic justice and poor people.

Are you angry at him for that? So am I.

Street-corner hunter

Whatever he did after being captured by the street-corner hunter – the repercussions were between his late wife and his children. They seem to have forgiven him. Why can’t you?

Part of the animus toward Edwards is, of course, nothing personal. It’s boilerplate lawyer bashing, a national pastime. Lawyering is not, in many people’s eyes, an honorable profession – until they need one.

OK, all you Edwards-phobes out there. By a show of hands, how many of you would not dial his number if you were the plaintiff in a big-money case that called for a top-notch legal practitioner?

You can bet your Perry Mason boxed set that Edwards, pretty hair and all, would be at the top of my list of attorneys, even ahead of Algonquin J. Calhoun. He was – oh, never mind.

Having Edwards as one’s law partner or lawyer has its advantages, no doubt. He’s obviously a brilliant jurist who brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings, a quality that can positively sway starstruck, sympathetic jurors.

Of course, it can negatively sway people at the other end of the political spectrum from Edwards or people who are repulsed both by his behavior and that $200 haircut.

Craig Croom, a former District and Superior court judge who is running for an open seat this year, declined to speak specifically about Edwards, but he said that in his time on the bench, he saw attorneys antagonize juries. “Oh, that definitely can happen. It depends upon how infamous you are, or how long folks’ memories are. It can become an issue of credibility. You can upset a jury if you as a lawyer object to everything.”

I asked Catharine Arrowood, an attorney with Parker Poe and incoming president of the N.C. Bar Association, would she prefer an unknown attorney or one who is famous. “I’d want an attorney who knows what they’re doing,” she laughed. “There’ve been an awful lot of jury studies done, and how the jury feels about your attorney is something you’re trying to get information on.

“I think what’s most important, really, is how the lawyer performs in the courtroom. That’s what the jury is going to pay attention to,” she said.

If I were an attorney in a North Carolina courtroom, you know who I’d fear even more than a prospective juror who hated or loved Edwards because of his locks or anything else?

One who didn’t know who the heck he was, as one prospective juror admitted last week.

There is a hilarious scene early in the movie “Deliverance” where Burt Reynolds gets lost in the woods trying to find the river. “Don’t worry. I’ll find it,” he says after backing out of the dead end.

“It ain’t nothin’ but the biggest (expletive deleted) river in the state,” one of the mountain men replies.

To any prospective juror who doesn’t know who John Edwards is, all I can say is “He wasn’t nothin’ but the most polarizin’ politician in the state.”

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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