Edwards honed good campaign skills in front of juries
Monday, July 19, 2004
RALEIGH, N.C. -- In a performance reminiscent of lawyers made famous in literature and on television, John Edwards walked a jury through the last hours of 4-year-old Josh Howard's innocence.
Josh's daddy had promised they would go horseback riding that day, and by afternoon he was waiting at the day care center door for a ride home that would never come. His parents had been killed in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer.
"Why? Why?" Edwards asked, channeling the young boy's grief in the courtroom.
As he re-enacted that 1990 courtroom scene a year later in a videotaped seminar for trial lawyers, Edwards said the key was establishing an intimacy with the jury.
"Talk to them like you talk to people on your back porch," Edwards said. "The jury needs to feel good about what you're asking them to do."
Edwards parlayed that potent mixture of country boy charm and courtroom savvy into a string of multimillion-dollar verdicts. And his skill at connecting with juries -- what he has called a "microcosm of democracy"-- is being put to use as he campaigns as running mate to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
"That will serve him well," says Mike Dayton, editor of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. "It's no accident that he did well in the presidential race when he was running. He does connect very well with crowds as he does when he's with an individual."
To this day, the Edwards videotape is required viewing for young lawyers joining Ron Dilthey's law firm.
"He has an insight into the heart and soul of a jury," says the Raleigh lawer, who has known Edwards for about two decades. "He was a people's lawyer."
In the 20 years before his 1998 election to the Senate from North Carolina, Edwards won $152 million in 63 lawsuits. Of the 54 cases in which the plaintiffs were awarded more than $1 million, nearly 60 percent involved medical malpractice, according to an analysis by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly.
The best-known case involved Valerie Lakey, a 5-year-old Raleigh girl whose intestines were sucked from her body when she was caught in the suction of a pool drain. Rejecting an offer of $17.5 million, Edwards won a verdict of $25 million -- the largest personal-injury award in state history.
In 1985, Edwards spoke to another jury in the voice of an unborn girl pleading from the womb for the obstetrician to pay closer attention to the fetal heart monitor.
"She said at 3, 'I'm fine.' She said at 4, 'I'm having a little trouble, but I'm doing OK.' Five, she said, 'I'm having problems.' At 5:30, she said, 'I need out."'
The girl was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The jury awarded her family $6.5 million, reduced to $4.5 million on appeal.
Five years later, in Josh Howard's case, Edwards spoke to the jurors as if he were enlisting them in some great endeavor. He told of the grueling schedule the trucking company demanded of the driver, and how that helped the firm amass a net worth of $700 million.
"I want to talk to you about what the 12 of you can do to keep this tragedy from ever happening again," he said.
But he reminded them that the case wasn't only about what they could do for society, but what they could do for Josh. Their verdict, he said, will tell Josh how much his father was worth.
"I ask you to give him an answer."
The answer: $6.5 million.
"There's no question about it. He is an excellent, excellent advocate," says Dr. H. David Bruton, whose pediatric partnership settled a malpractice suit by Edwards in the early 1980s. "He understood the system and was well prepared and articulate."
The blue-collar, textile worker's son from Robbins studied law at the University of North Carolina. When he wrote "Securities Regulation -- Challenging the Short Form Merger Through Rule 10b-5 and the Corporate Purpose Doctrine" for the 1977 North Carolina Law Review, there was little hint that he would someday be a national player.
"My impression was he was a nice guy, friendly guy, regular guy," says Pat Oglesby, Edwards' law review editor and classmate. "Not ambitious. ... not somebody with a kind of a 'Hey, hey, out of my way' mentality. Not somebody who was interested in seeking the limelight."
But Professor William Turnier, then a law review adviser, knew Edwards was destined for great things. Turnier noted that Edwards had graduated National Legal Honor Society, Order of the Coif. The Order, named for the white head cloth formerly worn by British lawyers, was for students in the top 10 percent of their class.
"It has nothing to do with his hairdo," Turnier quipped. "This is a smart guy."
Edwards clerked for a federal judge and spent three years in civil practice in Nashville, Tenn., before returning to North Carolina. Tharrington, Smith & Hargrove wasn't hiring when he walked in the door in 1981, but the firm recognized his talent.
"It was just obvious to all of us that here was a young man that had tremendous energy, great intellect, great enthusiasm," says partner Roger Smith Sr. "He was just impressive in every way."
Edwards soon gained a reputation as a lawyer who would study and work harder than most of his opponents. Of the 1985 case, he once wrote, "I had to become an overnight expert in fetal monitor readings."
He was considered by some the state's most feared trial lawyer. Of the 61 malpractice cases chronicled by Lawyers Weekly, Edwards won eight verdicts totaling $40 million and settled 51 cases for more than $68 million.
"It was in the courtroom that I learned how, when you build a case, every detail matters and every bit counts," Edwards wrote in his book, "Four Trials." "I came to genuinely understand how smart and decent all kinds of regular people are -- even at the worst moments in their lives."
Edwards left Tharrington in 1993 for private practice, but his life took an abrupt turn in 1996 with the death of his 16-year-old son, Wade. Edwards left the practice two years later to make his first run for public office.
Turnier bristles at the suggestion that being a successful trial lawyer somehow makes Edwards unfit to be vice president.
"Lawsuits are part of a free-market system," Turnier says. "And if you don't have them, people will engage in any sort of risky activity without any concern for facing the consequences."
But Bruton, the pediatrician, said Edwards is part of another system -- a medical malpractice system that rewards sympathy over scientific truth.
"He didn't invent the system. He just works within that faulty system," said Bruton. "And he functioned obviously well within that faulty system." Bruton added that Edwards, as a politician, "never attempted to help fix the system that I know anything about."
Associated Press writer Steve Hartsoe contributed to this report.