In Louisiana, you either love him or you loathe him. He was either the greatest governor in the state’s history or the cause of all of its problems.
His personal finances became the focus of a federal investigation at the end of his first term, way back in 1975. Ten years later, in 1985, he became the first sitting governor in state history to be criminally indicted, starring in not one but two sensational trials that ended, at least inside of the courtroom, in a dramatic acquittal that humiliated federal prosecutors.
But in the court of public opinion, he would be branded as a crook.
In this three-part retrospective, we look back at only one chapter in the life of the indomitable Edwin W. Edwards, who turned 93 in August: The events leading up to the jolting decision announced on Thursday, May 11, 2000 inside of Federal District Judge Frank Polozola’s courtroom in downtown Baton Rouge.
We begin with a conversation with a man who knows more about Edwards’ legal saga than anyone else on the planet other than the former governor himself: Edwards’ legendary criminal defense attorney, Mike Fawer.
Last year, over the course of several months, I had the opportunity to sit down and interview Mike about his extraordinary, six-decade-long career as a criminal defense attorney, which he chronicles in his book From the Bronx to the Bayou. Along with producer Ben Collinsworth, we turned those conversations into a limited podcast series, “Combat in the Courtroom,” which debuted in late October 2019 with an episode about the blockbuster murder trial of prominent New Orleans furniture dealer Aaron Mintz.
Obviously, it’s taken longer than I initially anticipated to get the whole series finished and online, a consequence of a global pandemic that has upturned nearly every aspect of daily life and, frankly, my own decision to take on more projects than I could handle at the same time (I want to make it clear that the delays were my fault, not Ben’s and certainly not Mike’s).
The good news is that the series is now finished, and the final three episodes—which are about the fall of the Jefferson Political Dynasty in New Orleans, the trial and impeachment of Federal Judge Walter Nixon of Biloxi, and the five times in Mike’s 60-year career in which his “combat in the courtroom” earned him contempt citations (only one of which ended up sticking)— will all be online soon.
I’m immensely proud of how the entire series turned out, and I encourage you to listen to the whole season. But I will confess: This episode about the trials and tribulations of Edwin Edwards is definitely my favorite. For one thing, Ben does a fabulous job of stitching together old audio clips of Edwin Edwards and archived media coverage to add context and flavor, but beyond that, the story itself is fascinating. Yes, it is about a governor who often relished in his excesses and who seemed to believe in a more elastic definition of what constituted an “appearance of impropriety” than most people.
But this is also about a group of government prosecutors who were similarly excessive and who seemed driven more by an egotistical desire to win convictions than a patriotic duty to secure justice.
In reflecting back on this case some 20 years later and with the benefit of hindsight, we may now be in a better position today to answer a few fundamental questions: Who were the victims here? Who suffered harm because of the actions that were said to have occurred in this case? Was it the people of Louisiana? Perhaps, inasmuch as the state suffered a reputational injury, but Edwards wasn’t actually convicted for any actions he undertook as governor. To the contrary, actually. On those charges, he was acquitted. Who was injured? It seems notable that the only person who testified under oath that he was extorted directly by Edwin Edwards, San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., entered into a cooperating witness agreement that allowed him to avoid jail time in exchange for his testimony and for a guilty plea on one felony count of failure to report a felony. In other words, his crime was that he didn’t report being the victim of a crime. And there were other significant issues as well with the way the trial was handled by Judge Polozola.
We’ll address all of these points in greater detail in the second part of this series. In the third and final installment, we’ll look back on the former governor’s history with the outgoing President of the United States, which should shed new light on his decision to grant DeBartolo a pardon in February and the possibility, however remote, of him doing the same for Edwards.
But first, block off about an hour of your time and hear what Mike Fawer has to say.
Combat in the Courtroom: Episode 7
The Tribulations and the Trials of Edwin Edwards