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John Edwards appears confident as defense rests in his trial

John Edwards, a fallen legal and political star, appears unbowed in court as a lurid tale plays out in his campaign finance fraud trial.

May 16, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • John Edwards arrives with his parents, Wallace and Bobbie, at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C.
John Edwards arrives with his parents, Wallace and Bobbie, at the federal… (Chuck Burton, Associated…)

GREENSBORO, N.C. — His political career is wrecked, his reputation is destroyed. He poisoned his marriage, and his martyred wife died knowing he cheated on her and lied about it to the world.

And yet Johnny Reid Edwards has behaved as if he owns the courtroom where the Justice Department has been prosecuting him the last three weeks. He strides into court, his face tanned, his hair perfectly in place, his suit crisp. He grabs his counsel's arm and orders him to object to a prosecutor's question. He whispers to his lawyers, writes furiously on a legal pad and studies the jurors who hold his fate.

Edwards, a honey-voiced North Carolina lawyer who made his fortune persuading juries to award huge sums to injured clients, is accustomed to winning in courtrooms. And on Wednesday, as his lawyers rested their case after calling just seven of the 65 people on their witness list, he projected confidence that he will once again prevail.

His legal team is betting that, although evidence portrayed Edwards as a cad, prosecutors didn't prove that he broke federal campaign finance laws in an attempt to cover up an affair.

The end came without the dramatic testimony of the defendant himself. Also absent from the stand were Edwards' oldest daughter, Cate, a lawyer herself, and Rielle Hunter, the mistress who had previously unburdened herself on "Oprah."

The two sides will make closing arguments Thursday. After the judge instructs the jury, deliberations could begin Friday.

In charging Edwards with six counts of violating campaign finance laws, the government says he accepted $925,000 in illegal contributions to cover up the affair and save his 2008 presidential campaign from scandal, and then conspired to lie about it.

Edwards' attorneys say the money, provided by two wealthy benefactors, was private gifts designed to hide the affair from his wife, Elizabeth. They say Edwards didn't know about the payments, that they were solicited by former aide Andrew Young as part of a scam to benefit Young and his wife.

The government must prove that Edwards knew about the payments and knew he was breaking the law.

Edwards, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina and 2004 vice presidential nominee, met Hunter, who had been hired as a campaign videographer, in the run-up to the party's 2008 presidential election.

In court, that affair has played out with a cinematic flourish, beginning with the initial tryst in a hotel bar and featuring jackals from the tabloid press always in hot pursuit.

Testimony emphasized the more outrageous elements:

Young, Edwards' adoring Sancho Panza, falsely claimed — at Edwards' behest — to be the father of Frances Quinn Hunter, the daughter born to Edwards and Hunter in 2008. Earlier, he recounted, Edwards had told him that Hunter was "a crazy slut" and that there was only a 1-in-3 chance the baby was his.

Hunter and the baby were even taken on madcap cross-country flights to hide them from the National Enquirer.

Elderly billionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon wrote more than $700,000 in "Bunny Money" checks for "furniture" to an interior decorator who turned them over to Young and his wife, Cherie.

The Hunters reportedly concocted fake expense reports, saying they needed money from Edwards' benefactor Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer, to buy Hunter a $28,000 BMW; in fact, according to testimony, they'd already bought the car with Bunny Money.

They also allegedly used much of Mellon's and Baron's money to build a $1.6-million mansion in Chapel Hill, N.C., while embarking on vacations and shopping sprees with money they claimed to have spent on Hunter.

Then there was the testimony about Elizabeth Edwards, who reportedly stripped off her blouse and bra at an airport, collapsing in rage and grief as she confronted her unfaithful husband. (That searing tale prompted Cate Edwards to bolt from the courtroom in tears, her father calling after her, "Cate ... Cate.")

A confidant of Elizabeth Edwards told jurors that Edwards, dying of cancer, feared that "when she died, there would not be a man around who loved her."

The interior decorator testified about Mellon's belated realization that her money was helping hide a sexual dalliance: "Maybe you should pay for your girlfriend yourself," Mellon reportedly told Edwards.

Voicemails from Edwards were featured as well, portraying him as a scheming, duplicitous politician conniving to save himself from scandal. So was a court exhibit documenting Hunter's menstrual cycle and likely conception date (between May 25 and May 28, 2007).

Even the infamous $400 Edwards haircut in 2007 was resurrected because the Edwards campaign claimed it as a campaign expense.

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