The judge in the John Edwards trial abruptly closed the courtroom Friday to talk to attorneys about an issue with a juror and sent the panel home after six days of deliberations with a stern warning not to talk about the case.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles did not indicate what the problem was after meeting with prosecutors and defense lawyers for about 35 minutes, but when she reopened the courtroom, she admonished the jury before dismissing them until Tuesday.
"All of your deliberations should take place while you are in the jury room and together," Eagles said. "Don't discuss the case in small groups."
The jury's behavior drew attention Thursday when the four alternates all wore canary-yellow shirts. On Friday, they all wore bright red shirts, as did two of the 12 jurors deliberating the case.
One of the alternates, a young woman, has also frequently exchanged smiles with Edwards and nodded enthusiastically during closing arguments last week as the former presidential candidate's lawyer urged them to find his client not guilty.
Kieran J. Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor who has attended nearly every day of the trial, said he has never seen such unusual behavior as the color-coordinated clothing, or a juror so openly flirtatious with a defendant.
"It's seems harmless when the alternates are doing it, but if the jurors are doing it, that's a concern," said Shanahan, now a Raleigh defense attorney. "This case has enough issues already."
The alternate jurors are not supposed to talk about the case and they are kept separate from the other 12 jurors during their deliberations. All 16 of the jurors eat lunch together, but the judge has warned them not to deliberate or talk about the case then.
Eagles can dismiss an alternate juror without affecting the trial. But if she dismisses one of the 12 deliberating the case, deliberations would have to start all over with an alternate a part of the discussions, Shanahan said.
The judge scheduled court to start 30 minutes early Tuesday, after the Memorial Day holiday, and said she would possibly take up the juror issue again.
Prosecutors say Edwards masterminded a plan to use money from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Edwards has denied knowing about the money, but his lawyers have argued that even if he did, it was a gift from friends, not a campaign contribution intended to influence the outcome of an election.
Edwards is charged with six felony counts related to illegal campaign contributions. He faces a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison, though legal experts say he is likely to serve no more than 5 years if convicted.
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