Just before John Edwards was indicted Friday, prosecutors made a final offer: They would accept his guilty plea to three misdemeanor campaign finance law violations in the $925,000 cover-up of his affair.
With the deal, the former Democratic vice-presidential nominee would avoid a felony conviction - and almost certainly keep the law license that had made him wealthy.
But there was a catch.
The government wanted to dictate a sentence that would result in up to six months of prison for Edwards, even with the plea to lesser charges.
Edwards and his lawyers were concerned. They wanted the ability to at least argue to a judge for alternatives, such as a halfway house, weekend releases, home arrest or some arrangement that would allow Edwards to be with his school-age children. He is a single parent after the death of his wife, Elizabeth, in December.
But the way the possible plea deal was structured, the Edwards lawyers believed they would be muzzled from advocating at all about Edwards' confinement before a judge, according to multiple people who were involved in the negotiations. Those sources described the plea negotiations in detail on a condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
It was the last significant issue to be resolved for a plea. If Edwards didn't agree, he would be indicted on multiple felony charges.
Edwards, 57, understood the risk. As a trial lawyer, he had sometimes spurned offers of settlements to take his chances with a jury, often winning big judgments. Would he do that again?
The clock was ticking.
'Furious back and forth'
The investigation had gone on for two years. Prosecutors presented evidence and called witnesses before a grand jury in Raleigh, in the Eastern District of North Carolina. In January, the case moved from Raleigh to Washington, D.C., to the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
For the next few months, the defense team argued the law, saying that the payments to Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, were not a violation of campaign finance statutes. The attempt to derail the case failed near the end of May, when senior officials at the Justice Department gave the go-ahead for an indictment.
With that, the choice for Edwards had narrowed: Plead or face charges.
The sides agreed decisions would come no later than Friday, hopefully sooner.
Indeed, several deadlines would come and go in the midst of a "furious back and forth" over how the case could be resolved in a plea, according to several people.
The main negotiators were Edwards' lawyer Gregory Craig and Jack Smith, chief of the Public Integrity Section. Both are based in Washington. They were looking to resolve the case short of a costly and uncertain trial.
For much of the talks, the government's offer in any plea deal would have required that Edwards admit to at least one felony.
Under a felony plea, the deal would have included a sizable fine but maybe or maybe not prison time.
Edwards refused. A felony would likely have ended his right to practice law, and Edwards doesn't believe that he committed a felony, according to people familiar with his views on the matter. Edwards has declined interview requests.
Intent to break law?
His team had shown defiance, too. As the case was under review behind the scenes in recent months, defense experts had been offering their views to prosecutors that what happened in the Edwards matter wasn't against the law, even if donors had given money to the mistress knowing that it was, in part, to keep the campaign going. One such meeting was on April 20 in Washington.
Prosecutors allege that the money was necessary to keep the affair and resulting pregnancy a secret from the media and voters, and that the hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy supporters Rachel "Bunny" Mellon of Virginia and Texas lawyer Fred Baron were part of a conspiracy to "protect and advance" Edwards' candidacy for the White House in 2008.
A crucial part of criminal law is that there was intent to violate it.
Prosecutors allege that Edwards knew that campaign laws require disclosure of contributions and limit how much one person can give to an election. Edwards knew the flow of money was outside the law, the prosecutors allege.
The indictment describes two possible witnesses who would testify that Edwards linked the money to his efforts to win election.
In a brief statement after the indictment, standing near the front of the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, Edwards said he "never, ever thought that I was breaking the law."
But the night before, he was considering admitting to just that.
In the end, no deal
Edwards and his legal team gathered at his estate in Orange County into the late hours Thursday, connected on conference calls to prosecutors in Washington. Edwards' children were at the home, and he occasionally left the meeting to speak with them. But the tone was businesslike as the discussions and phone calls went past midnight.
What had started as a discussion of a felony with the possibility of no jail time had become a deal for misdemeanors but with more certainty of prison. That new twist came up relatively late in the talks.
But as Thursday turned into Friday, Edwards could not agree to silence his lawyers from making arguments to a judge about confinement.
The sides agreed to talk again Friday morning, as a grand jury in Greensboro was prepared to act on an indictment.
The failure to reach a plea, people who were involved said, wasn't certain until a few minutes before the indictment was returned by the grand jury about 9:30 a.m. Friday.
Edwards, just as he had in cases for his clients, would not accept a deal. For now, he would gamble on motions to a judge to dismiss the charges. And, if necessary, a jury.
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