GREENSBORO, N.C. — As jurors in the John Edwards campaign corruption trial deliberated for a fifth day Thursday, legal experts cautioned it's still too early to read too much into their discussions.
While the former presidential candidate, the media and court observers look for clues to what the jury is thinking, legal experts said it's early in such a complex case to read too much into jurors' body language, dress and demeanor. Even speculating on why they have asked questions about one particular wealthy donor may be going too far.
"You can always try to come up with these inferences," said Steve Friedland, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Elon University School of Law. "People want signs, but this isn't picking a pope. They won't send up smoke signals."
Edwards is charged with six felony counts related to campaign finance violations. If convicted on all counts, Edwards faces a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison, though legal experts predict a term of less than five years would be more likely.
To convict Edwards, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles instructed the jurors they must conclude beyond a reasonable doubt not only that the candidate knew about the secret payments made on his behalf, but he knew the cover up was illegal and that he went ahead anyway. Even legal experts with detailed knowledge of federal campaign finance rules are split on whether Edwards violated the law.
Hampton Dellinger, a Raleigh lawyer who has attended the trial, said the longer the jury goes without reaching a verdict, the more likely they are to deadlock on some or all of the charges.
"The more you think about this case, the more confusing it can get," Dellinger said. "Our campaign finance laws are very, very complicated."
If the jury does eventually signal to Eagles they are deadlocked, the judge is likely to read them an Allen Charge that encourages them to reconsider their positions and deliberate further.
Friedland cautioned that even a week of deliberation is not uncalled for in such a lengthy and complex case.
"What they're doing is their due diligence," the law professor said. "This shows the system is working and there is no rush to judgment. But if it stretches longer than a week that is a sign there is real disagreement."
Shortly after starting their deliberations Friday, jurors in the Edwards case asked for office supplies and a stack of trial exhibits that included copies of handwritten notes from the 101-year-old heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, one of two wealthy political donors who provided the nearly $1 million used to help hide the Democrat's pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.
During the nearly four weeks of testimony, the federal courtroom in downtown Greensboro was packed with local retirees and other spectators wanting to catch a glimpse of the fallen political star.
The crowd has since thinned. Most of those left are the dozens of news reporters waiting on the jury's decision. Outside the courthouse front doors, a tent city is erected each morning by the photographers and television cameramen who capture the daily ritual of Edwards, his parents and his eldest daughter arriving and leaving each day.
In between, members of the news media lounge in camping chairs, check email and speculate.
The fact the jury foreman was wearing blue jeans Wednesday was interpreted to mean a decision was still at least a day away. People dress up more when they think they might be photographed, it was suggested.
The jurors deliberate in a windowless conference room, their privacy protected by U.S. Marshals. Their lunch is catered inside.
The group of eight men and four women mostly come from middle-class backgrounds, including a retired fireman, a special education teacher, a plumber, a retired railroad engineer and two mechanics. There are also jurors with a financial background, including a corporate vice president and a retired accountant.
During jury selection, one juror recounted handing out pamphlets supporting Democratic President Barack Obama in 2008, while another said he had put out yard signs over the years supporting Republican candidates.