State Politics

Former Sen. John Edwards returns to the courtroom in his first trial since political rise and fall

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.
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.

John Edwards, the former presidential candidate who trusted his own fate to a federal jury nearly two years ago, is back to where he started before his political collapse.

The former U.S. senator and one-time darling of the Democratic Party was in a Pitt County courtroom this week helping to choose a jury in a medical malpractice case. The lawsuit has elements of the kinds of cases that made Edwards millions in his first go-round as a trial lawyer before he journeyed into politics.

Still trim and polished in his business suits and crisp shirts, Edwards sat at a courtroom table with Robert Zaytoun, a Raleigh lawyer who specializes in personal injury cases.

They’re representing the parents and guardians of a 4-year-old Virginia boy who suffers from brain damage and physical injuries that they contend occurred in December 2009 while he was an infant in the care of Pitt County Memorial Hospital and Craig A. Sisson, an emergency room doctor there.

At the defendants’ table on the opposite side of the courtroom were Tom Harris, the New Bern attorney representing University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina, the umbrella organization that includes Pitt Memorial, and Samuel G. Thompson, the Raleigh attorney representing the doctor.

They’re challenging the claims of malpractice that the plaintiffs claim occurred when the infant was moved with severe respiratory problems from Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville to Pitt Memorial in Greenville while on a pediatric ventilator.

“This is a case about a little boy that was hurt very badly,” Edwards said in a statement released by a public relations firm Friday afternoon. “Robert Zaytoun has assembled an outstanding legal team that I am excited to be a part of, and we are going to do everything possible to see that this family gets justice.”

Zaytoun, who has a long history with Edwards, said, “A case of this magnitude calls for the best any lawyer can give it.”

Edwards, who opened a new law firm in November with his former partner, David F. Kirby, and his oldest daughter, Cate, has worked on other cases since returning to his first career.

Same sway with jurors?

Amid the flurry of publicity about his hanging a law shingle again were questions about whether he could ever have the same sway with a jury that earned him a reputation as a powerful closer in complicated cases.

The senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate saw his political career end after tawdry, salacious details about his extramarital affair that resulted in a child.

In May 2012, a federal jury cleared Edwards on one campaign finance allegation and then failed to come to a unanimous verdict on five other charges. He had been accused of misusing nearly $1 million in campaign donations to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter.

The federal judge declared a mistrial and prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges, making it possible for Edwards to start his next life chapter legally vindicated with his law license intact.

He did not answer questions Friday about any insight he gained from that experience or the impact it might have on plaintiffs, defendants or juries.

He stressed that his time in the courtroom now is about an injured child.

Though a full jury has not yet been selected for the Pitt County case, some of the potential jurors are aware of the celebrity in the courtroom and others claim to have no idea who he is.

On Friday, Harris, the New Bern lawyer representing the hospital, interviewed one woman in the jury box while trying to decide whether to keep her on the panel.

‘Not a senator anymore’

As is typical in jury selection, Harris asked the Pitt County native if she knew anyone involved in the case – from potential witnesses to the attorneys in the courtroom.

She said “no” and shook her head.

“Not even the senator?” Harris asked.

“No,” she repeated.

Edwards took notes and occasionally asked to have something barely audible repeated as the potential jurors responded to questions.

“I’m not a senator anymore,” he said after that question.

Inside the courtroom, Edwards and others tried not to let his celebrity interfere with business.

His famous hair, according to one Pitt County detention officer, is still enough of a curiosity that courthouse officials had to shoo away one curious onlooker peering through the courtroom doors for a glimpse of the haircut.

Outside the courthouse, Edwards flashed a bright smile to greeters who ran up to shake his hand and have a personal brush with the man who once sought a seat in the executive branch.

His focus now is on the judicial branch of government, he and his associates say, and the struggles of one family whose son now needs extraordinary care and help with typically simple tasks, such as sitting up.

“Obviously many people know John from various ways,” Zaytoun said. “This case is not about any lawyer. This case is about a child.”