GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Justice Department's attempt to convict John Edwards of campaign finance fraud failed Thursday, with a federal jury rejecting the complex felony case against him. But minutes later, Edwards himself delivered an abject confession and apology on the courthouse steps with his family at his side.
"While I do not believe I ever did anything illegal … I've done an awful, awful lot that was wrong," Edwards said after jurors found him not guilty of one charge of violating federal election laws. The judge had declared a mistrial after jurors deadlocked on five other charges.
Flanked by his elderly parents and his oldest daughter, Cate, the former candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination said he alone was responsible for the illicit affair that destroyed his marriage, ended his political career and tarnished his reputation. Prosecutors had focused on his furtive romance with Rielle Hunter, eliciting withering testimony that he lied about it and tried to cover it up.
"There is no one else who is responsible for my sins," Edwards told reporters Thursday. "I am responsible.... It is me and me alone."
In what seemed an offer of heartfelt contrition and the beginning of a campaign to rehabilitate his image, Edwards spoke of his love for his children — including Frances Quinn Hunter, the daughter he fathered with Rielle Hunter, but who he once denied was his child. He said he would "dedicate [his] life to being the best dad I think I can be" and to helping poor children.
A jury of eight men and four women deliberated for more than 50 hours over nine days before telling U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles on Thursday afternoon that they were deadlocked over the five charges. Just 20 minutes after the judge asked them to resume deliberations and try to reach unanimous verdicts, the jurors returned to report that they were still hopelessly deadlocked.
Eagles asked the jury foreman, a financial consultant, whether further deliberation would likely lead to verdicts. "No, your honor," he replied.
The Justice Department must now decide whether to retry Edwards on the five counts. A spokeswoman in Washington, Alisa Finelli, said the department had no immediate comment.
Edwards, 58, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, was charged with "knowingly and willingly" accepting illegal campaign contributions from two wealthy donors to help hide the affair and save his campaign for the 2008 nomination from collapsing in scandal. One count charged Edwards with conspiring to accept the payments and to conceal them through "trick, scheme or device."
He had faced up to 30 years in jail and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.
Edwards' lawyers conceded that he was a philandering husband who had lied to his cancer-stricken wife and to voters. But they said the payments were private gifts intended to hide the ongoing affair — and Quinn — from Elizabeth Edwards, who was in failing health. She died of cancer in December 2010.
The narrative of the four-week trial was dominated by salacious details of Edwards' affair, but the outcome hinged on the intricacies of densely written federal campaign finance laws. In the end, jurors decided that Edwards did not violate those laws regarding a $200,000 check in 2008 from billionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon. They did not indicate which way the panel was leaning on the five deadlocked charges.
Edwards, deeply tanned and wearing his customary dark suit and green tie, leaned back in his chair at the defense table and exhaled when the not-guilty verdict was read aloud. Moments later, he reached across the courtroom bar to hug Cate, 30, a lawyer herself.
A highly successful personal injury lawyer, he gave bear hugs to his three attorneys, including lead counsel Abbe Lowell, telling them: "Thank you. Thank you all."
Just before the jury's decision, Cate had touched her father's shoulder and whispered: "Dad, I love you." She attended the trial every day, escorting Edwards though the daily gantlet of TV cameras in front of the courthouse.
Cate "never flinched," her father told reporters later, "no matter how awful and painful a lot of the evidence was about" her unfaithful father and her late mother, who testimony showed was increasingly distraught over her suspicions about the affair.
Asked in the courtroom how he felt about the jury's decision, Edwards' father, Wallace Edwards, 80, pointed to the smile on his lips and said: "This says it all."
Edwards' mother, Bobbie, 78, who — along with her husband and Cate sat behind Edwards throughout the trial — said, "We prayed for this and God answered our prayers."
The jurors had initially confused the judge Thursday by delivering a handwritten note that said: "We have finished our deliberations and have arrived at our decisions on counts one through six."