Jury weighs six counts against Edwards

Edwards jury resumes weighing 6 charges

ablythe@newsobserver.com May 21, 2012 

— The eight men and four women tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of former presidential candidate John Edwards are to return to their deliberations Monday morning.

On Friday, the first day of its deliberations, the jury spent about four and a half hours behind closed doors, emerging once to hear Judge Catherine Eagles respond to a request for evidence and another time for an hour lunch break.

The trial that played out over almost four weeks of testimony in a windowless, wood-paneled courtroom often seemed to be more about a public flogging of a philandering husband and celebrity, but the issues before the jury are about drier stuff: the fine points of campaign-finance laws that regulate national political campaigns.

If he is convicted of any of the six charges he faces, Edwards could be sentenced to prison.

Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor who now has a private practice in Raleigh, said he did rough calculations, using federal sentencing guidelines, and said he did not expect Edwards to get more than four or five years, if convicted.

The charges, he said, are similar and related. Though a conviction on each count appears as if it could bring a total of 30 years, Shanahan said it was more likely the sentences would be collapsed into one.

If the jury returns a guilty verdict, sentencing would not occur immediately.

Typically, Shanahan said, a sentencing report is prepared which includes biographical information and other details, and the preparation and verification of the report can push a sentencing hearing to 60 to 90 days after conviction.

Six specific charges

The six counts against Edwards break down as follows:

• Counts two and three are related to the $725,000 in checks that Virginia heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon issued in 2007 and 2008.

For each of these counts, the jury must also decide whether the charges have been brought in the proper venue. Defense lawyers have argued that the indictment improperly included activity that occurred outside of the 24-county U.S. Middle District of North Carolina, where the indictment was returned and the trial has been conducted.

• Counts four and five are related to the payments that prosecutors contend billionaire Texas lawyer Fred Baron made in 2007 and 2008. For those charges, too, the jury must weigh whether the actions alleged by prosecutors happened in the district that includes Orange, Chatham, Durham, Alamance and 20 other counties extending as far west as Statesville.

• Count six is the charge that Edwards caused his campaign committee to submit a false campaign finance report that concealed a “material fact” from the government.

• Count one, which is at the end of the jury verdict sheet, is a conspiracy charge, accusing Edwards of conspiring to obtain campaign contributions from Mellon or Baron that exceeded the legal limits and were not properly reported.

Judge’s instructions

The judge gave lengthy instructions on Thursday afternoon to the 12 members of the jury plus the three women and one man now designated as alternates.

In her instructions, Judge Catherine Eagles elaborated on a number of words and phrases that could be key in jury deliberations.

The jurors will have to decide what prosecutors meant when they accused Edwards of secretly obtaining money “to influence the election.”

“The government does not have to prove that the sole or only purpose of the money was to influence the election,” Eagles’ instructions state. “People rarely act with a single purpose in mind. On the other hand, if the donor would have made the gift or payment notwithstanding the election, it does not become a contribution merely because the gift or payment might have some impact on the election. Nor does it become a contribution just because the donor knew it might have some influence on the election and found that acceptable, if the donor’s real purpose was personal or otherwise unrelated to the election.”

The government, according to Eagles’ instructions, did not have to prove that Mellon or Baron had specific knowledge about how the money would be spent or that it was spent on the campaign.

Defining ‘contribution’

Further, Eagles stated in her instructions, the “government does not have to prove that Mr. Edwards himself personally accepted or received the money, though of course that would be sufficient. It would also be sufficient, however, if the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Edwards willfully caused another person to accept or receive the contribution on his behalf.”

Prosecutors called 24 witnesses to try to bolster their claims as they wove a tawdry account of what happened behind the scenes of Edwards’ 2008 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The defense team worked to keep the focus on campaign-finance law, though Eagles ruled against the attorneys’ efforts to call two former chairmen of the Federal Election Commission who were prepared to testify that such payments would not ordinarily be classified as “contributions” because the money was spent on “personal matters.”

Eagles also would not allow a treasurer of the Edwards presidential campaign committee to testify about conversations she had with FEC commissioners after the indictment was issued and a public audit had been completed after the allegations arose.

The FEC allowed the campaign committee to close its account in April, the same month the criminal trial against Edwards began.

Prosecutor Jeff Tsai protested the testimony at the time, saying, “Whatever the FEC determined is not relevant to the criminal charges.”

Now Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an organization that has taken great interest in the Edwards case, is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to clarify the weight it gives FEC decisions on campaign-finance law issues.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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