Closed meetings fuel speculation at John Edwards trial

GREENSBORO, N.C. — An eighth day of jury deliberations in the John Edwards trial passed without a verdict Wednesday, but not without several episodes of drama that played out behind closed doors.

After receiving a note from a juror, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles cleared the courtroom, twice, to confer privately with prosecutors and defense lawyers. Eagles provided no details, and defense lawyers and the court clerk declined to comment after jurors went home for the day.

The same issue also prompted the judge to meet twice in her chambers with the lawyers. “We’ve been dealing with a note from one of the regular jurors,” Eagles said in court.

After a long day of uncertainty on the part of journalists and spectators about whether the trial was nearing an end, Eagles told the four alternate jurors that they were free to “go on with your lives” and would no longer be required to spend their days sequestered at the courthouse. She said they would remain on call in case a replacement juror was needed.

Two young women among the alternates danced and waved their arms above their heads in the hallway just outside the courtroom as they were escorted out by federal marshals.

Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who has taught trial advocacy at Harvard Law School, said that sending alternates home could mean the judge believes jurors are making progress toward a verdict — or that they are close to declaring an impasse.

McRae said the juror’s note also could reflect a wide range of issues — from a juror refusing to take part in deliberations or disputes over how to interpret evidence or testimony.

“You can only assume that the process is still ongoing,” McRae said in a telephone interview.

If jurors inform the court that they have reached an impasse and cannot decide on a verdict, the judge is obliged to disclose that, McRae said. The clerk in Eagles’ courtroom, Gloria Powell, said after court Wednesday that word of an impasse — or a verdict — would be announced promptly after either had been reached.

In releasing the alternates, Eagles referred to the color-coordinated outfits they’ve worn in recent days. “We are going to regret not knowing the color for tomorrow,” she told them.

For the record, the clothing color for Wednesday was purple, although there was some debate among spectators whether one alternate was wearing a brown or dark plum blouse.

“Everyone in the courtroom is going to miss your cheerful faces,” Eagles told them. That might have been a reference to media speculation that one of the female alternates had smiled at and flirted with Edwards.

The judge also told the alternates: “We have the healthiest group of jurors with the fewest scheduling problems I think I’ve ever seen.”

Her comment suggested that the juror’s note did not involve an illness or a scheduling conflict — though Eagles referred Tuesday to requests from jurors to leave court early on some days to attend high school graduations.

Eagles reminded jurors and alternatives, as she has several times, not to discuss the case outside the jury room, even with fellow jurors. She warned them not to read or watch media reports.

Her warnings on both Tuesday and Wednesday were more explicit than in the past. She said Tuesday that “problems can arise” with jurors in a long trial with extended deliberations. She urged jurors to “control your words.”

Jurors have been in court since jury selection was completed April 23 and have deliberated for more than 45 hours since May 18.

“Judge Eagles’ tone ... may suggest that there is something more serious troubling her,” Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, wrote in an email. “There are many ways in which jury behavior can become an issue on appeal.”

He added: “My sense is the judge is being as careful as possible so that the resolution is fair and justice is reached.”

Edwards, 58, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, is charged with six counts of violating federal election laws during his failed campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.