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Still no verdict in John Edwards trial

Jurors complete a fourth day of deliberations in the campaign finance trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards. They will resume Thursday.

May 24, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

GREENSBORO, N.C. — For a fourth day Wednesday, the jury in the John Edwards trial deliberated without reaching a verdict in a case focused on an illicit affair and federal campaign finance laws.

The jury of eight men and four women must decide whether Edwards violated election laws when payments from two wealthy donors were used to cover up his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter during Edwards' failed run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Prosecutors contend that Edwards solicited $925,000 in illegal contributions from the donors in order to hide the affair and keep his campaign from collapsing in scandal. Defense lawyers say the payments were gifts intended to hide the ongoing relationship — and a daughter born to Edwards and Hunter — from his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth Edwards.

Edwards, who made a fortune as a personal injury lawyer, could not use his own money because his wife was suspicious and monitored his bank accounts and credit cards.

Edwards, 58, a former U.S. senator and the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, is charged with six counts of violating election laws. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted and sentenced to maximum punishment on all charges.

Prosecutors accuse Edwards of orchestrating a scheme to collect payments from billionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, now 101, who was a fervent Edwards supporter, and from the late Fred Baron, Edwards' campaign finance director.

The defense says Edwards' aide Andrew Young masterminded the scheme. Young, who later turned against Edwards, had once been so loyal that he falsely claimed to have fathered Hunter's baby.

Young and his family joined Hunter in cross-country flights as they tried to hide the pregnant mistress — and later her baby — from pursuing National Enquirer reporters. Though some payments went to support Hunter, testimony showed that the Youngs siphoned off more than half the money to build a $1.6-million home and to go on vacations and shopping sprees.

Young, testifying for the prosecution under an immunity agreement, said Edwards orchestrated the cover-up but repeatedly assured him that the arrangements were legal.

Jurors must decide whether the payments were campaign contributions intended to influence the election — and that Edwards acted "knowingly and willfully" — or private gifts not directly related to the campaign.

In instructions to the jury, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles said prosecutors didn't have to prove that the sole purpose of the payments was to influence the election, only that there was a "real purpose or an intended purpose" to do so.

However, Eagles told the jurors, "if the donor would have made the gift or payment notwithstanding the election, it does not become a contribution merely because the gift or payment might have some impact on the election."

Jurors have asked to review more than a dozen prosecution exhibits, most relating to Mellon's payments.

"The government has to prove that Ms. Mellon had a real purpose or an intended purpose to influence an election in making the gift or payment," the judge told jurors.

But, she said, "if you cannot say what the purpose was beyond a reasonable doubt," the jury cannot find Edwards guilty of accepting illegal contributions.

Deliberations resume Thursday morning.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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