Jurors tend to look past a criminal defendant’s reputation, no matter how odious, to render verdicts based on fact and law, lawyers said after former presidential candidate John Edwards won an acquittal and mistrial last week.
Federal jurors in Greensboro, North Carolina, on May 31 acquitted Edwards of one charge of using illegal campaign contributions to hide an extramarital affair and couldn’t decide about five other counts. They did so after hearing evidence that Edwards cheated on his dying wife and lied to the public about fathering a child with his paramour.
The verdict sends an encouraging signal to Roger Clemens, the former Major League Baseball pitcher now on trial in Washington for lying to Congress about his use of steroids, said Douglas Godfrey, a professor who teaches criminal law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
“While we would all acknowledge that Edwards and Clemens are not nice guys and they behaved in very bad ways, that’s not the same as violating the law,” Godfrey said in a telephone interview. “Just because you’re an arrogant SOB or philanderer, that’s not the same as committing a crime.”
Edwards’s acquittal and mistrial came 11 months after a Florida jury acquitted Casey Anthony, an Orlando mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, and 22 years after a New York City jury rendered a not guilty verdict in the racketeering case of Imelda Marcos, the former Philippines first lady ridiculed for owning more than 1,000 pair of shoes. In those cases and others, public opinion had turned so harshly against the defendants that a conviction seemed almost an afterthought.
Then the jury weighed in.
“It’s a great affirmation of our jury system that people like Casey Anthony and John Edwards, who are personally unlikable and in many ways despicable, can still sit in front of a jury of 12 people and have those 12 people judge them based on the evidence,” said Marc Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor who is now in private practice at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP.
Edwards, a former Democratic U.S. senator from North Carolina and presidential contender in 2008, was accused of violating campaign finance laws by accepting almost $1 million from multimillionaire heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron, a now-deceased trial attorney, to conceal an affair. The case marked the first time the government prosecuted someone for campaign violations when money was paid to a third party.
Jurors deliberated for nine days before reaching their partial verdict. They couldn’t agree on counts that included a claim that Edwards conspired to protect his candidacy by secretly soliciting and accepting the funds and causing his campaign to file false reports with the Federal Election Commission.
He’s unlikely to be retried, a person familiar with the matter said last week.
Except for the defendants’ notoriety -- Edwards for adultery and Clemens for arrogance -- the two cases have few similarities, said Stefan Passantino, who heads the political law team at McKenna Long & Aldridge in Washington. Lying to Congress, which Clemens is accused of, is a far more established crime than the conduct for which Edwards was on trial, he said.
Still, both defendants have had to confront the prospect that jurors would convict because of their reputations. The Edwards jury didn’t, in part because defense lawyers shifted the focus to ex-campaign aide Andrew Young, who acted as a go-between on transactions involving Mellon and Baron and used some of their money to build his own $1.5 million home.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell also addressed the character issue head-on.
“John Edwards may have committed many moral wrongs but he did not commit a legal one,” Lowell told jurors during his closing argument. “He was a bad husband and lied to his family but there is not a remote chance that he violated campaign finance laws or committed a felony.”
Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor who is now at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles, said jurors were attentive enough to the case’s nuances to see past Edwards’s reputation.
“Perceptions about personalities don’t govern verdicts,” he said. “In Edwards, personality didn’t rule.”
While Clemens is a seven-time Cy Young Award winner as the best pitcher in his league, he also ranks 14th in Major League Baseball for hitting 159 batters with pitches during his career.
Lawyers for Clemens, whose reputation for abrasiveness grew after he hurled a bat at an opposing player and because of his performance before Congress, have been taking a page from Edwards’s book. The ex-pitcher’s defense has been focused on tearing down the credibility of the government’s only eyewitness, Brian McNamee, Clemens’s former trainer.
McNamee testified he gave Clemens injections of steroids and human-growth hormone. Clemens’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, got McNamee to admit he’d lied to federal investigators and accused him of alcohol abuse and engaging in a fraudulent scheme to obtain diet pills.
“The facts are very different, the personalities are different,” Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a partner with McCarter & English LLP in Newark, New Jersey, said of the Clemens and Edwards cases.
“But if there’s any positive message that Clemens can draw out of the Edwards verdict, it’s that jurors will look beyond whatever antipathy they may feel regarding their personal conduct and do their best to make a decision based solely on the facts and law presented to them at the trial,” Mintz said in a telephone interview.
Jacob Frenkel, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer who is now with Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker PA in Potomac, Maryland, said it’s proven lying, and not reputation, that puts many celebrity defendants behind bars. He pointed to Martha Stewart, who was sentenced to six months in prison in 2004 for obstructing justice by lying to prosecutors, and baseball player Barry Bonds, the career home-run record-holder who was convicted last year of obstructing justice for deceiving a grand jury.
Clemens is accused of obstructing justice and perjury.
“It is the acts of lying or obstruction that often are the downfall,” Frankel said in a telephone interview.
It’s not only Clemens who may take comfort in the Edwards verdict, said Michael Kendall, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Boston and a former federal prosecutor. In New York, Rajat Gupta, who was once a director of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and who ran McKinsey & Co. from 1994 to 2003, is defending against charges that he leaked inside information to hedge fund co-founder Raj Rajaratnam.
If Edwards could win an acquittal, so might Gupta, even amid public hostility to bankers and Wall Street in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, he said.
“There are a thousand ways to derail a prosecution,” Kendall said in a telephone interview. “There’s an incredible common sense in collective good judgment in the jury system.”
The Edwards case is U.S. v. Edwards, 11-cr-161, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Greensboro). The Clemens case is U.S. v. Clemens, 10-cr-223, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington). The Gupta case is U.S. v. Gupta, 11-cr-907, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).