News & Politics

A Conversation With Abbe Lowell

John Edwards’s lawyer talks “de-picking” jurors, life during the trial, and Edwards’s input on strategy.

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it will not retry former senator
John Edwards on corruption charges, thus officially ending the campaign finance investigation into the onetime Democratic presidential

It wasn’t only Edwards who breathed a sigh of relief. The news was also a victory for his lawyer,
Abbe Lowell—the prominent Washington white-collar defense attorney who counts
Jack Abramoff and
Gary Condit among his former clients. On May 31, a North Carolina jury had found Edwards not guilty on one of six charges stemming from
an alleged scheme to cover up his affair and child with
Rielle Hunter. But the jury deadlocked on the remaining charges, meaning Justice could’ve decided to retry those issues.

Lowell talked with
The Washingtonian about enduring the nearly two-month-long trial, the role John Edwards and his daughter, Cate—both lawyers—played in the defense
strategy, and what he was thinking during the jury’s nine days of deliberation.

This was a tough case.

Every case is hard. What made this case particularly hard was, among other things, that there was so much going on outside
the courtroom. It’s the media—plus it was hard because my client happened to be one of the great trial lawyers in his own
right, and he had a lot to tell me every day. It was hard because his family has been so supportive and they were there every
day, so I felt obligated to do well for them. It was hard because we were in a very new area of the law, and the judge often
ruled against what we thought were the right decisions. A good example is that she denied our request to put on a federal
election law expert that we believed the law required her to allow.

Can you describe what your life was like during the trial?

I never really end up having the luxury of trying a
case at home. I’ve now tried cases in 17 different states, plus Puerto
Rico. It’s dislocating in a lot of ways. You’re never staying
in any luxurious place. You’re away from your home, your family,
your friends. It’s not quite 24/7, but it’s darn close. I think
we all worked no fewer than 18 hours a day, six and a half
days a week. The Marriott people were lovely and accommodating,
but it’s a hotel.

The good side about it would be that my family would be the first to tell you I’m not fun to live with during a trial, so
they’d just as soon have me living in a Marriott.

The jury deliberated for nearly two weeks. What were you thinking during that time?

That’s the longest [deliberation] I’ve had in a single
defendant case. Nine days—that sets the record for me. I don’t know
that anybody’s good at that kind of waiting. I think I’m
particularly bad. What’s going through your head is a thousand things:
Is there anything I did that I could’ve done better? Are there
any clues or hints you can pick up based on the jury’s notes
or facial expressions? Some juror sneezes and you interpret it
as being pro government.

What got me through in this case were two things. The
first was that we all kept saying to each other, “I’m not sure that
we’ve convinced all 12 people, but we know we didn’t lose all
12 people.” And then the second thing was John’s father. I’d
be doing my pacing down he hallway thing, or sitting outside
our conference room by myself, and this 80-year-old man would
come over to me and tell me, “Don’t worry, everything’s going
to be okay.” I thought I should be consoling him, and here he
is consoling me.

John’s family has been through quite a lot. They’ve suffered a lot.

Particularly Cate.

I assume you mean particularly Cate in that she has
had the most burden on her, and I think that’s right. Between growing
up and losing her brother, going through the difficulties of
campaigns, the issues between her parents, her mother’s illness
and ultimate death, her father’s affair, and his investigation
and trial—it’s more than a daughter should have to bear, and
she did it with grace and love and calm. She was really
steadfast. She was a great help to me. She was a very useful sounding

She’s a lawyer, and, of course, John Edwards is a very talented trial lawyer. How involved were they involved in your strategy?

He was very involved. There was not a day—I like to
joke and say there wasn’t an hour—that he wasn’t involved. He had lots
of input, lots and lots of ideas. He wasn’t shy about telling
us ideas he had, things he thought we did well, things we could
do better. He was the most hands-on client I’ve had in a case.

Cate played a sporadic, strategic role. She played an important role in jury selection. Her views on that were very helpful.
She played a behind-the-scenes role in strategy.

What were you looking for in jurors?

I don’t like to give the idea that we had a formula.
You don’t pick a jury. You de-pick a jury. You don’t select people; you
get to strike people. There were a lot of jurors that expressed
great concern about John’s non-charged behavior. People who
we felt couldn’t get past that or would hold him responsible
for things he wasn’t charged for were a concern for us, obviously.

When the jury read its verdict on the one count, what were you thinking?

As soon as we knew what count it was on which they had
made an agreement, it was a positive moment. You always feel concerned.
As [their deliberations] had gone on, the concern was that
they’d compromise—that they’d be in the room nine days and one
would say, “I’ll give you this count, you give me this one, and
we’ll all go home.” That’s just the human nature of compromise.
We were very happy they didn’t do that. It was half an exhale,
and then the other half was Wednesday.

Why did you decide not to have John or Cate testify?

I can say generally by the time we got to our case and the government rested, we thought we had the ability to focus our case
on what we thought were the most important issues. That allowed us to strip away a number of witnesses.

What is your relationship with John like, having gone through all of this together?

I knew him before, which was one of the reasons he
called me. It was much more of a lawyer-client professional relationship
at the beginning. But you can’t be in that kind of a battle
with somebody where it remains antiseptic or sterile. I am particularly
bad in this regard. I don’t have any real distance from my
clients. I live in their shoes. I can tell you by the end of the
case, we had gone past attorney-client for sure. I really am
close to his family now. I feel like he and they are friends
and family of mine.

Did you do anything to celebrate?

The night of the first round of verdict, the team didn’t have a very wild celebration. We went out to dinner and then went
to John’s house.

I needed to have Wednesday happen [to really celebrate]. I’m glad it’s summer. Now it’s time to make plans. I’m trying to
figure out how to get some time away. It was pretty exhausting.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.