After more than a decade of silence, Juror 68 — who was removed from deliberations during the riverboat casino corruption trial of Edwin W. Edwards — is speaking out, saying the former governor was wrongly convicted in an unfair trial that included intimidation in the jury room.
The names of the jurors in the 2000 trial were — and still are — kept secret. They were known only by numbers to protect their identities.
But Victor Durand, Juror 68, occasionally attends campaign events held by Edwards, who is now the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 6th Congressional District.
“Given what I heard in the jury room, I know he was wrongly convicted,” Durand said in a recent interview. “There was nothing fair about what happened to Mr. Edwards. He deserves a second chance.”
Durand said he believes he was removed from the jury during deliberations because, after hearing all the evidence in the trial, he had doubts about Edwards’ guilt and strongly expressed them.
“I was swiftly thrown off the jury,” he said. “I could have been the determining factor in the verdict.”
Eleven days into deliberations in the 17-week trial, then-U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola dismissed Durand from the jury, ruling he had violated his oath by taking a dictionary into the room where jurors were weighing Edwards’ fate and by walking out of the jury room with notes. The defense objected, saying Durand was favorable to their cause. A single juror holding out would have meant a mistrial.
Eddie Jordan, who was the U.S. attorney at the time and is now a private lawyer in New Orleans, said the federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court examined “the process and result and apparently they don’t agree with Juror 68.”
“He doesn’t have any support in the court system,” Jordan said. “That’s pretty telling.”
Jim Letten, the assistant U.S. attorney who handled the day-to-day trial and later became U.S. attorney himself, had but one comment about Durand’s assertions: “The court record speaks for itself, and it speaks loud and clear.”
Other jurors in the case, who also were identified by numbers, couldn’t be located for comment.
Durand grew up in Crowley, where Edwards launched his political career in 1954 by winning a seat on the Crowley City Council. At the time of the trial in 2000, Durand had just turned 40. He knew Edwards was governor, but not much else about him. It was his first time to serve on a jury.
Early in the trial, some of his fellow jurors wanted to take a vote on Edwards’ guilt or innocence, Durand said.
He and a couple of other jurors refused because all the evidence had not been heard, he said.
“It was very inappropriate,” Durand said. “There were several people upset. They did not give their opinion.”
But several jurors “commented early on that they felt the judge wanted a guilty verdict and it was their job to do that,” he said. He added that “certain jurors,” whom he would not identify, tried to intimidate him.
“I would not allow them to make up my mind for me,” Durand said. “All you have to have is one doubt. You don’t have to have a hundred doubts. You just have to have one doubt.”
Some jurors disobeyed court instructions not to watch television or read the newspaper, Durand said.
Edwards and five others were accused of extorting millions of dollars from businesses seeking riverboat casino licenses. Edwards said the payments were legitimate business transactions for legal and consulting assistance.
Highlights of the trial included testimony of huge sums of cash changing hands, secretly recorded conversations and the public betrayal of Edwards by men he once socialized and frequently gambled with.
Prosecutors elicited testimony that some of the payments were left in a dumpster for pickup by the accused.
“Do you believe Edwin Edwards would jump into a dumpster for a bag (of money)? How many bags are in a garbage dumpster? That’s just not his style,” Durand said.
The jury’s deliberations were “contentious” from the very beginning, Durand recalled.
“I was very vocal,” he said.
During deliberations, a U.S. marshal reported seeing a dictionary and a thesaurus in the courthouse room where jurors were meeting. Durand had brought in the books to look up the definitions of key terms, such as “conspiracy” and “extortion,” which the jurors discussed, according to the 2002 appeals court opinion . Jurors are not supposed to look at anything other than the evidence and the instructions the judge gives them.
Two days later, Polozola was informed that Juror 68 had left the jury room in tears and wrote a note for the record saying that he had “doubts” and was being “intimidated” by other jurors. Polozola denied the government’s motion to dismiss Durand, according the 5th Circuit.
About a week later, Polozola was informed by the jury foreman that Durand was refusing to participate in deliberations. The foreman said other jurors had seen Juror 68 “bring a note into the jury room and on another occasion remove sheets from his notebook from the jury room.”
Polozola held a hearing. Durand admitted to bringing a note into the jury room and removing sheets from his notebook, saying he still had the note in his wallet. Polozola wound up accepting the government’s motion to dismiss Durand based on the juror’s “inability to follow the court’s instructions” and his “lacking in candor” when dealing with the trial judge.
Four days later, the jury found Edwards guilty on 17 of 26 counts. His son Stephen, former gubernatorial aide Andrew Martin, cattleman Cecil Brown and Baton Rouge businessman Bobby Johnson also were convicted.
Edwards’ lawyers challenged Durand’s dismissal as part of their unsuccessful appeal of the conviction. Edwards’ appellate team included lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who argued to 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that “This judge was hell-bent on removing this juror.” The 5th Circuit disagreed, as did the U.S. Supreme Court. Edwards went to prison in October 2002 and served about eight years.
Now 87, he has jumped back into politics, winning a spot in the Dec. 6 runoff against Republican Garret Graves for the a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
His trial, the conviction and the years he spent in the federal pen are a ubiquitous part of Edwards’ campaign narrative. Edwards proclaims his innocence and has a string of jokes that refer to his incarceration. He denies any wrongdoing.
Durand said he is not campaigning for Edwards. But he showed up at Edwards’ election party in November, where he was recognized by some of the partygoers who also had attended the trial. He has an Edwards campaign sign in his East Baton Rouge Parish yard.
Durand said he is worried now that his identity has been made public, and declined to have a photograph taken for this article.
He denies “causing problems” on the jury.
Durand said he believes other doubting jurors folded after seeing what happened to him.
“It aggravates me sometimes,” Durand said. “It hurts me sometimes just to know what happened just wasn’t fair. I don’t think it was fair to him or myself.”
Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.