Jury to get Edwards case today

Former candidate’s intentions debated in closing arguments

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 18, 2012 

— Abbe Lowell, the lead defense attorney for John Edwards, walked to the lectern to begin his closing arguments Thursday and pointed to two books in the courtroom.

One was a Bible on a table before the judge, where witnesses are sworn in. The other was a book of federal statutes on a table in front of the prosecutors.

“Those two books,” he said, “have never been on the same table.”

With that image of separation, Lowell defined the essence of Edwards’ defense: A moral failing was not necessarily a crime.

Edwards was an unfaithful husband, Lowell acknowledged. And, he continued, Edwards was a Democratic presidential candidate who lied to his family, friends and the country about his affair with Rielle Hunter. He lied about being the father of a now-4-year-old daughter born to Hunter.

For those lies, Lowell argued, Edwards has been punished and will always be punished.

“He’s going to serve a life sentence for them,” Lowell said.

But as many moral wrongs as were committed, he said, there were no accompanying legal wrongs.

Prosecutors argued that Edwards’ actions were more than moral failings. They said his effort to cover up his affair and Hunter’s pregnancy led him to seek contributions and spend funds in violation of campaign-finance laws.

Robert Higdon, the only prosecutor from North Carolina at the trial table, was the first to begin stitching together weeks of testimony into a tightly woven argument with several key threads.

Prosecutor David Harbach got the last word, acknowledging some of the credibility issues associated with Andrew Young, Edwards’ former political aide, who provided the key testimony for the prosecution.

Young, who once falsely claimed paternity of Hunter’s daughter, testified under an immunity agreement. In cross-examining Young, defense lawyers questioned his credibility and motives and cited inaccuracies in his book “The Politician,” his unflattering tell-all account of the 2008 campaign.

Harbach tried to discount the defense team’s depiction of Young as a manipulator with the upper hand on Edwards. He said the truth was the opposite: Edwards selected Young as the aide he could best manipulate, then “throw under the bus” when he didn’t need him.

“And the Greyhound, folks, has been rolling through this courthouse for weeks,” Harbach said.

Prosecutors contend that the scheme Young described for hiding Hunter was a criminal one. They said money from two wealthy Edwards supporters – $725,000 from the Virginia heiress Rachel Mellon and some $200,000 more from Texas lawyer Fred Baron – was used to support and move Hunter about the country in an effort to keep Edwards’ campaign viable. Therefore, they contend, the checks and payments for hotel rooms, rental homes and flights that came from the supporters exceeded legal limits and were not reported as required.

Edwards’ attorneys said the money was given as gifts to resolve a personal matter and did not fall under campaign-finance laws.

Prosecutor Higdon started his closing arguments by taking the jury back to December 2006 when Edwards, a former U.S. senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, told a crowd of friends and supporters in Chapel Hill that he was planning a 2008 presidential campaign.

Hunter, a recently hired campaign videographer who had become romantically involved with Edwards, was in the crowd that day.

Tracing ‘seeds of destruction’

That was when, Higdon argued, the “seeds of destruction,” a phrase the prosecutor used throughout the next 90 minutes, were planted.

Those seeds, Higdon argued, grew into “weeds” which flourished over the next year and a half. The affair, Hunter’s pregnancy and the effort to hide both eventually drove Edwards to use secret funds and break campaign-finance laws, Higdon said.

The closing arguments drew a large crowd of media representatives, interested spectators and family and friends of the prosecutors, defense team and Edwards. An overflow crowd watched on monitors in an upstairs courtroom.

David Kirby, Edwards’ former law partner, wrapped his former colleague in a big hug during one of the breaks. Lowell’s family watched him, as did Harbach’s parents.

As Higdon chronicled the many accounts from the hotel rooms, private villas and fancy trips, he read arguments that had the ring of a trashy political thriller.

Higdon showed jurors a handwritten note that Mellon wrote to Young in April 2007, a short few sentences on which prosecutors have based their theory for intent in a case that legal analysts describe as unprecedented.

In that note, in which Mellon sketched the hills near her estate in Upperville, Va., she expressed her concerns over the bad press that Edwards got for a $400 haircut included on a campaign-finance report and stated that she was willing to help any way she could to get around what Higdon called, “those pesky government restrictions.”

What Mellon actually wrote of her plan to funnel funds through third parties to assist Edwards was: “It is a way to help our friends without government restrictions.”

Mellon, who has failing eyesight and a loss of hearing, according to her lawyer and staff, but is still sharp-minded, is 101 and was not called to the trial to offer her own words about why she funneled money to Young.

Lowell, the defense lawyer, told the jury that the government’s case focused on the salacious aspects surrounding Edwards’ affair, but those details were irrelevant to what they had to decide, he said. They had to make a judgment based on what the law says, Lowell added, and his client had not broken those laws.

Attempts to discredit Youngs

Lowell told the jury that their “way out of the hotel rooms” was to look at the charges.

Lowell argued that the only witnesses who fully supported what the government contended were Andrew and Cheri Young, the former aide and his wife. Lowell compared the couple, who used much of Mellon’s money for their own purposes, to the 1930s bank robbers, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Their accounts, Lowell argued, were not even consistent with each other.

“Even those two who could shame Bonnie and Clyde had not worked hard enough to get their stories straight,” Lowell said.

The jury will begin weighing the case Friday morning.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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