GREENSBORO — Prosecutors trying John Edwards have called a cast of witnesses over the past three weeks to talk about $400 haircuts, fancy houses, posh estates, back-biting, betrayal and an extramarital affair that sent a one-time presidential candidate plummeting to the depths of a criminal trial.
But prosecutors won’t be calling the woman who set the whole, sordid matter into motion – Edwards’ former mistress, Rielle Hunter.
Prosecutors told Judge Catherine Eagles late Wednesday that they still were on schedule to wrap up their side of the case on Thursday, and that Hunter, the woman with whom Edwards had an extramarital affair and a child, was not one of the witnesses they intend to call.
Legal experts said prosecutors should not call Hunter unless her testimony could directly link Edwards to the money that they contend was used to hide her. They also cautioned that it would be a risk to call a witness whose testimony might be unpredictable.
When the government rests, the stage will be set for the first key ruling in the trial.
Defense to ask for dismissal
Defense lawyers will likely ask Eagles, who will by then have heard the best evidence against Edwards, to dismiss the case in whole or in part. It is a standard maneuver in a criminal trial, but it may have a greater chance in this case in which the applicability of the law is also at issue.
Defense lawyers have argued that the campaign laws Edwards allegedly broke don’t apply to funds spent for personal reasons, such as the hiding of a mistress.
Prosecutors plan to end their presentation with the testimony of several federal agents on Thursday. But if that is the extent of the government’s witnesses, its case could go to a jury which will have to rule on the intent of key actors without hearing from two, and possibly three, of the people at the center of the charges.
Prosecutors called the lawyer, librarian, farm manager and grandson of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the Virginia philanthropist who issued $725,000 in checks to help Edwards. But Mellon, just thee months shy of her 102nd birthday, was not called to testify.
Fred Baron, the wealthy Texas lawyer who provided several hundred thousand more dollars toward the effort to hide a pregnant Hunter from the media, died in October 2008. No one other than Edwards’ former aide and his wife, Andrew and Cheri Young, who deposited more than two-thirds of the money in their private bank account, have offered any testimony about Baron’s intent.
And Edwards, a trial lawyer who had much success with juries when he was in the courtroom, may or may not take the stand in his defense.
As prosecutors push toward the close of their case, the defense team has offered themes of its own in their cross-examination of witnesses.
They contend that most of the money prosecutors say was used to hide Edwards’ pregnant mistress from the public to keep his campaign alive went to the Youngs, key witnesses for the prosecution.
Defense lawyers have attacked the character and motives of Andrew Young, making the trial as much Edwards versus Young as the government versus Edwards.
And Wednesday, they continued to push with their theory that Young was working closely with the FBI to ensure that an indictment was issued against Edwards. The defense contends he was in close contact with agent Charles Stuber, or “Chuck” as they’ve begun to call him.
Also on Wednesday, Jennifer Palmieri, a former Edwards campaign spokeswoman and friend of Elizabeth Edwards, became emotional while describing her relationship with the former Democratic presidential hopeful’s cancer-stricken wife and her last days.
“She was not able to speak at this stage,” said Palmieri, who now works for the Obama administration.
Shortly before she died, Elizabeth Edwards told Palmieri that she did not want to die alone, that when the time came, “there would not be a man around to love her.”
Palmieri said she would be there and was. So was John Edwards.
As Palmieri testified, Edwards rubbed his eyes and pressed his forehead against his hand.
Palmieri was under cross-examination by defense lawyer Abbe Lowell after testifying for prosecutors about a rancorous October 2007 Iowa hotel meeting in which Elizabeth Edwards was angry at Baron and his wife, Lisa Blue.
The Texas couple had taken Hunter on a shopping trip in California and Elizabeth Edwards was livid that they were continuing to stay in touch with Hunter. Edwards had told his wife the affair was over, and Elizabeth Edwards could not fathom why Baron and Blue were still in communication with her.
“Lisa kept saying, ‘You’ve got to hold your friends close and your enemies even closer,’ ” Palmieri testified.
Palmieri offered testimony that played to contentions by prosecutors that Edwards built his campaign on a family-man image, and that news of an affair could damage his chances. Therefore, the government argues, efforts to shield his image were campaign expenses.
Palmieri remembered the first National Enquirer story that mentioned the possibility of Edwards being involved in an extramarital affair.
It was months before the publication broke the news about Hunter being pregnant.
Palmieri talked about the efforts to keep the affair story from “jumping to the mainstream media.”
As she tried to help tamp down the story of the affair, Palmieri said she turned to Edwards and said: “If it’s true, don’t think you’re going to survive this.”
When pushed by prosecutor David Harbach about why she told Edwards that, Palmieri said: “A big part of his appeal was his family and his relationship with Elizabeth.”
Palmieri took the stand after speechwriter Wendy Button finished her testimony.
Button testified on Tuesday that Edwards told her in 2009 that he was aware all along that Baron had provided support to Hunter.
But on cross-examination, defense lawyer Lowell pointed out that Edwards had not specifically elaborated on what that meant.
Edwards and Button at the time were talking about Frances Quinn, the daughter he had with Hunter. He was upset and very emotional, Button said, that he had lied on an ABC interview nearly 11 months earlier that he was not the father.
Button was helping him prepare a statement that would acknowledge his lie and perhaps clear up other lingering issues.
That statement went through at least 13 renditions, was vetted by lawyers and others, and eventually was not delivered.