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John Edwards jury reaches verdict on 1 of 6 counts, is sent back

May 31, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • John Edwards returns to a federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., during the ninth day of jury deliberations in his trial on charges of campaign corruption.
John Edwards returns to a federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., during… (Chuck Burton/Associated…)

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Jurors in the John Edwards campaign finance trial resumed deliberations on Thursday afternoon after announcing they’d reached a verdict on one of six counts against the former Democratic presidential candidate – but not on the other five.

Although the defense promptly requested a mistrial, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles told the jurors to try again to reach a unanimous decision on all counts. Already the jury was in its ninth day of deliberations.

"It is possible you have already done what I have asked you to do," Eagles  said in addressing the jurors.  "It may only take you a few minutes" to decide they had done all they could do.

The jury of eight men and four women must decide whether $925,000 in payments from two wealthy patrons were illegal campaign contributions during Edwards' failed race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Edwards contends the payments were private gifts not directly related to the campaign.

The former U.S. senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee is charged with six counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted and sentenced to maximum penalties.

The first two counts  involve $725,000 in checks from billionaire heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, an ardent Edwards supporter. The second two counts involve payments from the late Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who was Edwards’ national finance chairman.

The other two counts accuse Edwards of causing his campaign to file false finance reports and conspiring to accept and conceal illegal contributions through “trick, scheme or device.”

The jurors reported they'd reached a verdict on count No. 3, though that  verdict was not announced.

Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who heads the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, speculated about the impact of a guilty verdict on Count 3.

"If the jury had voted not guilty on Count 3, it is unlikely they would have found Edwards guilty on the rest as the government arguably had stronger evidence to suggest Bunny Mellon’s contributions were made to assist the campaign than were Fred Baron's,’’ she said in an interview in Washington.

"That was the count that was the toughest for Edwards to beat. That’s the one they have a verdict on. ... If they had found not guilty on that, I don’t think they’d be struggling with the rest…. "

She said that if Edwards is convicted, he has strong grounds for appeal.

Sloan cited the judge’s refusal to allow jurors to hear testimony that Federal Elections Commission officials did not consider the money spent to hide Edwards' affair a campaign contribution.

On Thursday, confusion was apparent before the judge sent the jury back for more deliberations, with the judge assuming the jury had reached a verdict on all six counts.

The confusion stemmed from a note sent by the jury foreman to the judge: “We have finished our deliberations and have arrived at a decision on Counts 1 through 6.”

The judge interpreted the wording to mean the jurors had reached a verdict on all six counts.

In sending the jurors back, she told them: "No juror is expected to give up a conscientious conviction" about guilt or innocence. "I do not intend to force any of you to abandon your clearly held convictions."

Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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