Jury Gets Edwards Case
GREENSBORO - The fate of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards now rests in the hands of a federal jury.
Attorneys Thursday gave closing arguments in a trial that will determine whether money designed to conceal an illicit love affair and pregnant mistress actually were campaign contributions that should have been disclosed.
Federal prosecutor Robert Higdon and Edwards defense attorney Abbe Lowell laid out their views of the case to a jury of nine men and seven women, who are expected to begin deliberations today at the federal courthouse in Greensboro.
Edwards faces six criminal counts of campaign finance violations. He is accused of accepting but not reporting campaign donations exceeding the $2,300 limit for individual contributions.
If convicted, Edwards in theory could face as much as 30 years in federal prison and be fined up to $1.5 million.
The more than three weeks of testimony has bordered at times on the tawdry, fit more for a sensational tabloid than the dignified federal courtroom setting.
The courtroom has been packed every day with media observers and other onlookers who have been following the melodrama. The case has even captured international attention for its sensational details about a clandestine mistress and Edwards' denials of fathering a child out of wedlock.
Thursday's closing arguments were no different from any other day during the trial; the courtroom was packed and an overflow crowd had to watch proceedings in another room.
Uncontested during the trial was that Edwards, a former U.S. senator in the midst of his second run for the presidency, had an extramarital affair and a child out of wedlock with Rielle Hunter, a former campaign videographer he met at a New York hotel in 2006.
Philanthropist Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a 101-year-old woman with an expansive estate in the horse country of northern Virginia, issued checks from June 2007 to January 2008 totaling $725,000 that went to Bryan Huffman, an interior decorator in Monroe, N.C., who endorsed them and sent them to Andrew Young, then a political aide of Edwards.
Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who died in October 2008, provided $801,318 for expenses related to supporting Hunter, Young and his wife, Cheri, between Dec. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2008. It was unclear how the payments continued after his death, but no one disputed that they did.
Neither Edwards nor Hunter were called to testify at the trial. Attorneys had earlier this week said they planned to call Edwards' eldest daughter, Cate, but in the end defense attorneys concluded their case without calling her.
At the core of the case is whether the payments from Mellon and Baron were campaign contributions subject to contribution limits and public reporting requirements. But Baron had died and Mellon, given her age, was not called to testify about her intentions for the money. Her lawyer testified she only wanted to help a friend.
Prosecutors painted the Robbins native as a manipulator, a politician driven by the desire for power. In his opening statement, prosecutor David Harbach II described Edwards as a man felled by his own ambition who illegally used campaign funds from his 2008 presidential bid.
"He made a choice to break the law," Harbach said. "He made a choice to take hundreds of thousands of dollars."
But Edwards' lawyers contend the payments were gifts that went from his supporters to others, and that he did not receive a dime. On Thursday, they were almost certain to remind the jury that more than $1 million of the payments - some $700,000 from Mellon and another $330,000 from Baron - went to and stayed with the Youngs to help build their $1.5 million home in Orange County.
Lowell argued that the only witnesses who fully supported what the government contends were Andrew and Cheri Young, the former aide and his wife. Lowell compared the couple who used much of Mellon's money for their own purposes to the 1930s' bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Their accounts, Lowell argued, were not even consistent with each other.
"Even those two, who could shame Bonnie and Clyde, had not worked hard enough to get their stories straight," Lowell said.
Lowell urged the men and women to focus on what Edwards has been charged with violating.
He was an unfaithful husband, Lowell acknowledged. He lied to his family, friends and the country about that relationship and being the father of the now-4-year-old daughter with Hunter.
But as many moral wrongs as were committed, Lowell argued, there were no accompanying legal wrongs.
Federal election law regulations are numerous and complex, Lowell argued. For the jury to convict Edwards, he added, the jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the prosecution's contention that money spent on a mistress - and the doctors she visited while pregnant and a crib for the child, born in February 2008 - should be considered campaign contributions.
Though campaign finance law is at the crux of the case, there was only limited testimony about what did and didn't constitute a contribution. Much of the testimony from government witnesses focused on Edwards' extramarital affair and how it created complications in his campaign and pained his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth, who died in December 2010.
Information from The News & Observer of Raleigh contributed to this report.
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