Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Beldar scoops NYT on analysis of Edwards trial
History will reflect that today, during the fourth day of jury deliberations in John Edwards' criminal trial on campaign finance fraud charges, the New York Times finally figured out the most likely key to the John Edwards trial — "a rigorous disagreement between the defense and prosecution in the courtroom over whether the law requires that influencing an election be the sole reason for giving money, as the defense team interprets the law, or only one of the reasons, as the prosecution sees the case."
Let the record also reflect, however, that readers of BeldarBlog were so advised on Thursday, May 17, 2012, before the jury began its deliberations.
Like the first analyst quoted by the Times, I agree that these jury instructions are also likely to be the most promising potential basis for an appeal if the jury convicts Edwards. I'm not yet persuaded, however, that the instructions were defective. To the contrary, on this specific issue I'm quite confident that Judge Eagles' instructions are substantially correct: This is an issue of first impression, with no prior appellate opinions to resolve the issue, but nothing in the language of the statute supports the defense contention regarding "sole reason," and there's no reason for a court to read that extra requirement into the elements of the crimes the statute defines.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Beldar muses on John Edwards' fate while the jury is out
The press reports I've read regarding closing arguments today in John Edwards' criminal trial are unremarkable. The arguments might have been brilliant in person, but at least as filtered through the press they simply re-hashed themes and arguments and evidence that have been discussed before. So my interest turned to other, more technical matters that I actually think may be more important than the closing arguments themselves.
Unfortunately, I can't yet find a written version of the court's charge to John Edwards' jury earlier today — neither on PACER, nor elsewhere on the net. The charge will contain Judge Eagles' formal questions of, and instructions to, the jury, as delivered by her to them in writing and as read by her in open court before the jurors begin their deliberations. The charge is of crucial importance in every trial, but especially in a case like this one in which so many of the facts were essentially undisputed. The prosecution and Edwards' defense team certainly put very different characterizations on those facts. But when the jury tries to sort out which side's characterization is correct, the jurors inevitably will look to the judge's instructions and questions for their guidance.
However, the newest document that's up tonight on PACER — Edwards' lawyers' objections to the draft charge that was circulated after the charge conference yesterday — implies pretty strongly that Edwards' lawyers didn't get the instruction they wanted on what I believe to be the key legal issue in the case: whether to qualify as a "campaign contribution," something must be intended solely to promote a campaign. I don't know if Judge Eagles instead gave the jury the instruction requested by the prosecutors, which would have explicitly said that they could find Edwards guilty even if the conspirators had multiple purposes — in other words, even if Edwards, Bunny, Young, et al. intended to deceive both the American public at large and Elizabeth Edwards in particular. But I agree that that's the proper interpretation of the statute, so it wouldn't surprise me if Judge Eagles gave the jury the instruction as proposed by the prosecution, or something very close to it.
The other alternative is that she submitted neither side's requested instruction on this issue, but I think that would run a legitimate risk of juror confusion and misinterpretation. That's another way of saying: If she gives no instruction at all on this topic, that would permit the defense team to argue to the jury as if they had gotten the interpretation of the statute, and the resulting instruction, that they wanted, but that the judge has refused; and I think that would be improper.
If the prosecution did in fact get the instruction they wanted, or something pretty close, on this key point, then I think Edwards' conviction on at least some counts is likely. But of course, I'm basing that on an incomplete and subjective set of reports about the evidence, which I haven't actually seen or heard or read; and one can never be certain what any given jury will do. Until this particular jury returns its verdict, Edwards remains entitled to his constitutional presumption of innocence like anyone else; but barring a hung jury, that presumption is about to be replaced by a verdict one way or another.
UPDATE (Fri May 18 @ 5:45pm): Here, from PACER, are the Final Jury Instructions as read aloud and given in writing by Judge Eagles to John Edwards' jury yesterday. The key instruction, in my opinion, is this one (starting at page 8 of the .pdf file)(boldface mine):
... Whether the money Ms. Mellon provided to Mr. Young through Mr. Huffman was provided by Ms. Mellon for the purpose of influencing an election is a factual question you will decide from the credible evidence. You will consider any evidence about the intent, motivation, and goals of Ms. Mellon, evidence about the statements made surrounding the solicitation and acceptance of the money, how the money was actually spent, and other evidence of all the surrounding circumstances, and determine whether this money was given by Ms. Mellon for the purpose of influencing an election.
The government does not have to prove that the sole or only purpose of the money was to influence the election. People rarely act with a single purpose in mind. On the other hand, if the donor would have made the gift or payment notwithstanding the election, it does not become a contribution merely because the gift or payment might have some impact on the election. Nor does it become a contribution just because the donor knew it might have some influence on the election and found that acceptable, if the donor’s real purpose was personal or otherwise unrelated to the election. In other words, the government has to prove that Ms. Mellon had a real purpose or an intended purpose to influence an election in making the gift or payment. If her real purpose was personal or otherwise not for the purpose of influencing the election, or if you cannot say what the purpose was beyond a reasonable doubt, then that would not be sufficient to satisfy this element. If you find beyond a reasonable doubt that one of her purposes was to influence an election, then that would be sufficient.
The government does not have to prove that Ms. Mellon had any intent or knowledge as to exactly how the money would be spent, or that the money was in fact spent on the campaign, or that it would have been legal or illegal for the campaign to spend the money the way the money was in fact spent. While you may consider how the money was spent as part of your consideration of whether the money was provided for the purpose of influencing an election, it is not an element of the offense that the money be spent on purposes related to the election.
This, like similar instructions Judge Eagles has given in connection with later counts of the indictment, is close enough to what the prosecution requested that they are undoubtedly very happy with Judge Eagles' interpretation of the campaign finance statute — and I agree with the prosecutors that this is the correct interpretation of the statute. And this is exactly the opposite of what Edwards' lawyers had requested, which was an instruction that the intent had to be solely to influence an election.
In fact, I commend the entire document to you if you really want to know what the case is about.
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Edwards' defense team might want to reconsider their reliance on a Clintonesque "It's all just about sex" defense
John Edwards has always tried to emulate, and out-do, that other smooth-talking, good-looking Democratic politician from the South, Bill Clinton. Edwards has certainly fallen short of Clinton's achievements — most conspicuously in failing to win the White House. As for Edwards' foibles and failings, I suppose that the consensus of history will decide, someday, whether sexually exploiting a White House intern, and lying about that to the American people and the First Lady, is worse than having an affair and fathering a child with a campaign groupie, and lying about that to the American people and the would-be First Lady (who's also dying of cancer).
But John Edwards' urgent problem is not the eventual judgment of history, but the impending judgment of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. And his defense lawyers would do well to keep that always in mind as they ponder the appropriateness and likely effectiveness of a defense strategy consciously constructed to parallel Bill Clinton's defense in L'affaire Lewinsky.
Clinton was tried primarily in the court of public opinion. Oh, yes, he certainly was impeached in the House of Representatives, and he was nominally "tried and acquitted" in the resulting Senate proceeding over whether he ought also be removed from office. But there is not much resemblance between even the formal "rules" that governed the impeachment proceedings against Clinton and those which are governing Edwards' criminal trial. And Edwards' trial in North Carolina has taken place within a structure, a setting, that has little in common with Capitol Hill. The key participants in Edwards' trial are ordinary, "real-life" participants in our criminal justice system, with the most significant of them being chosen as a cross-section of the voting public — not big-shots from our political system.
Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist did a fine and fair-minded job of presiding over Clinton's Senate "trial," using his exalted position atop the judicial branch to keep order inside the Senate chamber during the formal proceedings. But nothing could give even the Chief Justice remotely the same practical authority or influence over the U.S. Senators who decided Clinton's fate that U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles will necessarily have over the jurors who decide John Edwards' fate.
When Clinton's supporters argued — within the House and Senate proceedings, but mostly, incessantly, and desperately in every channel of public conversation outside the Capitol Dome — that his prosecution was "all about sex," there was no one to overrule them, to correct them, to re-focus the inquiry.
But whenever John Edwards' team finishes his defense — and it's still essentially certain that defense will not include Edwards waiving his Fifth Amendment rights and taking the stand on his own behalf — Judge Eagles will give the jury a set of written instructions and questions comprising the "charge of the court" and their required verdict form. Although she will doubtless give Edwards' lawyers great latitude to argue, if they wish, that Edwards' prosecution is "all about sex," or "all about politics," or "all about ____ (fill in the blank)," nevertheless, when all the lawyers are done, the jury will be obliged to answer the questions posed by Judge Eagles.
And at that point, Edwards' lawyers simply won't any longer be able to distract attention from those questions and that verdict form any longer. Judge Eagles' questions will be lifted in large part from the text of the relevant statutes. And those questions are therefore guaranteed to be about violations of the federal campaign finance laws — not about sex, not about politics.
Edwards' lawyers can puff and huff about sex and politics all day long, but it's the jury's eventual answers to those specific questions which will decide their client's fate.
Being tried in the court of public opinion, rather than in a U.S. District Court, was an enormous advantage to Bill Clinton because a "misdirection defense" works quite well in a court with no rules, no boundaries, and no effective judge to control the proceedings and define the issues. I doubt that a "misdirection defense" is likely to be as effective in Judge Eagles' courtroom. But I suppose it's the best semblance of a defense they can put together for this toxic scoundrel.