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John Edwards not guilty on 1 count, mistrial declared in other 5

May 31, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • John Edwards leaving court in Greensboro, N.C., recently.
John Edwards leaving court in Greensboro, N.C., recently. (Sara D. Davis / Getty Images )

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was found not guilty Thursday on one of the six counts of campaign finance fraud against him. The jury deadlocked on the other counts, and the judge declared a mistrial.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles had sent the jury of eight men and four women back to resume deliberations earlier in the afternoon after the foreman reported that jurors had reached a verdict on one count, but not the other five.

The jurors, already in their ninth day of deliberations, returned after 20 minutes.

The judge asked, "Would further deliberations have any reasonable chance of a unanimous decision on the other counts?"

The foreman replied, "No, your honor."

Edwards, who was handed the foreman's note before it was read by the clerk, showed no emotion upon doing so. When the verdict was announced, however, he smiled, then reached over and hugged his daughter Cate and his parents. He also gave a bear hug to his attorneys, saying, "Thank you, thank you all."

Edwards' father, Wallace Edwards, when asked how he felt, pointed to a  big smile on his own face and said, "This says it all." His mother, Bobbie Edwards, said: "We prayed for this, and God answered our prayers."

The government now must decide whether to seek a new trial on the five counts for which a verdict was not reached.

The trial featured two main characters who were exposed in testimony as liars with tarnished reputations -- Edwards and his former aide, Andrew Young.

Edwards lied about his affair with Rielle Hunter and falsely denied that he fathered their daughter. The prosecution portrayed him as a manipulative politician who orchestrated payments totaling $925,000 from two wealthy benefactors to cover up the affair and thus save his campaign from collapsing in scandal.

Prosecutors built their case around Young, who testified under a grant of immunity. Young said Edwards solicited the payments, kept abreast of the scheme and even persuaded Young to falsely claim that he had fathered Hunter's child. But testimony revealed that Young and his wife kept much of the money for themselves, and kept phony records to cover it up.

The money came from Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, 101, a billionaire heiress and ardent Edwards supporter, and from Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who was Edwards' campaign finance chairman. Baron died in 2008. Mellon, who has failing eyesight and hearing, was not called to testify.

In three weeks of testimony by 24 witnesses, prosecutors focused on the tawdry details of the affair and the attempts to keep it secret. Jurors heard salacious details of trysts between Edwards and Hunter, and descriptions of madcap trips across the country to hide a pregnant Hunter -- and later her daughter -- from pursuing National Enquirer reporters.

The case was unprecedented; no major political candidate has been charged with campaign finance corruption for attempts to hide a mistress. Hampton Dellinger, a North Carolina lawyer who has taught election law at Duke University and who attended the trial, said Edwards is the most prominent American lawyer put on trial since Clarence Darrow.

There was no smoking gun, no body, and not even a distinct crime scene. In fact, the defense argued that there was no crime at all -- only a philandering husband desperately trying to hide an affair from his wife.

Witnesses described how Mellon sent "Bunny money" checks to an interior decorator, Bryan Huffman, who endorsed them and sent them to Andrew Young. His wife, Cheri Young, then deposited the checks in the couple's accounts, using her maiden name.

Jurors heard how some of the money from Baron was spent to support Hunter's lavish lifestyle. With the Youngs and their small children in tow, Hunter was flown to expensive hotels and homes in exclusive neighborhoods in an attempt to escape tabloid reporters determined to expose the affair.

Edwards, 58, a former U.S. senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee, was charged with six counts of violating federal election laws. Prosecutors said he "knowingly and willingly" solicited the payments and knew they were illegal. One count charged Edwards with conspiring to accept the payments and to conceal them from the Federal Election Commission through "trick, scheme or device."

The defense said the payments were private gifts intended to hide the affair from Edwards' wife, Elizabeth Edwards. Witnesses testified that Elizabeth Edwards, who died of cancer in 2010, had become increasingly suspicious of her husband, monitoring his bank accounts and phone calls.

Edwards' lawyers mounted a two-pronged defense. They attempted to discredit Young as an opportunist seeking revenge against his former boss. They tried to convince jurors that under federal election law the payments were private gifts not directly related to the campaign.

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