GREENSBORO, N.C. - For nearly a week, the dark-haired young woman with the bubbly manner was the It Girl of the John Edwards trial.
She walked in flitting her hair, smiling broadly at the man at the defense table, batting her long eyelashes, cocking her head playfully. She was just an alternate juror, but suddenly she was the most watched person in the cramped, sweltering federal courtroom in this sleepy southern city. Commentators dubbed her the “Lady in Red’’ after she bopped into the courtroom last week in a revealing, off-the-shoulder red top. Others called her the “flirty one,’’ interpreting her vivacity as some kind of courtship dance, though no one can say for sure whether that was her intent.
The spectacle of tracking every twitch or gesture of this particular alternate juror lent something of a circus atmosphere to the proceedings. That aura intensified when the four alternates wore the same color tops for each of the last four court days: yellow last Thursday, red on Friday, black and gray on Tuesday, and purple on Wednesday.
Now the judge overseeing the case seems to have had enough. On Wednesday Judge Catherine Eagles, a seasoned state court judge who has been on the federal bench for less than two years, sent the alternates home. They can still be recalled to replace a regular juror. But they will no longer be required to sit for hours in a federal courtroom waiting while the main jury wrestles with six campaign finance and conspiracy counts related to nearly $1 million in payments from two wealthy benefactors that prosecutors say were used to cover up Edwards’s extramarital affair with videographer Rielle Hunter during his 2008 presidential campaign.
“Everyone in the courtroom is going to miss your cheerful faces, and we’ll regret not knowing the color for tomorrow,’’ Eagles said in an obvious reference to the color-coordinated outfits of the alternate jurors.
Eagles’s handling of the alternates has been highly unusual, legal analysts said. Many judges send alternates home during deliberations, but warn them that they cannot watch media reports about the case because they might have to replace a juror. Eagles not only kept the alternates in court, but she also allowed them to eat lunch with the jury, a kind of proximity many judges seek to avoid in order to prevent outside opinions from influencing regular jury members.
Edwards’s renowned defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, who has been in a glum and seemingly agitated state for several days, smiled as Eagles made her announcement. But the punctuation mark was delivered by the now famous alternate juror. As she walked out of the courtroom, she pumped her fist in joy.