Edwards cleared on one count, mistrial on others

Jury acquits former senator on one count; mistrial declared on five

ablythe@newsobserver.com May 24, 2012 

  • The six counts faced by Edwards COUNT ONE: Conspiracy: John Edwards knowingly conspired from 2007 to 2009 to solicit and receive illegal donations of $725,000 from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, and $200,000 from Texas lawyer and former Edwards campaign finance chairman Fred Baron. Edwards then used the money to conceal the relationship with Rielle Hunter and the resulting pregnancy, and concealed the donations from the FEC and the public through false and misleading campaign-finance reports. COUNT TWO: Illegal campaign contribution: Edwards, while a candidate for federal office, knowingly accepted contributions from Mellon in excess of the limits of the Election Act, which aggregated $25,000 and more in calendar year 2007. COUNT THREE: Illegal campaign contribution: Edwards also accepted illicit donations from Mellon in calendar year 2008. COUNT FOUR: Illegal campaign contribution: Edwards accepted donations in excess of legal limits from Baron in 2007. COUNT FIVE: Illegal campaign contribution: Edwards also accepted excessive donations from Baron in 2008. COUNT SIX: False campaign-finance reports: Edwards knowingly “falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme and device” hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions for the 2008 primary election for president. He caused his campaign to produce false campaign-finance reports to the FEC that disclose all contributions over $200 in a cycle.

— The scandal of John Edwards hiding his pregnant mistress while running for president brought a common refrain of “What was he thinking?” And on Thursday, the trial that grew out of that tawdry scenario ended with a jury largely unable to agree on an answer.

The jurors announced after nine days of deliberations that they were hopelessly divided on five of the six charges against Edwards, but in unanimous agreement that he was not guilty on one count.

The eight men and four women left the downtown courthouse without elaborating on their deliberations.

It was unclear whether the government will seek a new trial on any of the five counts for which Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial. But some news organizations reported Thursday that a high-level law enforcement official said it was unlikely the Department of Justice would try the case again.

Edwards, 58, just 10 days shy of his 59th birthday, stepped up to a microphone afterward, addressing the large contingent of media just beyond the steps of the federal courthouse he had climbed many times over the past month and a half.

His eldest daughter, Cate, was at his side, as were his parents, Wallace, 80, and Bobbie, 78. The three were with him in the courtroom for almost each day of the trial.

Edwards, a former senator and trial lawyer who had his first taste of being a criminal defendant in a country he once wanted to lead, praised the jurors for taking the time to “reach a fair and just result under the evidence of the law.”

“Thank goodness that we live in a country that has the kind of system that we have,” he said as a TV helicopter hovered loudly overhead.

Edwards did not take questions from the media, nor did he take the stand in his defense during a trial that often seemed to be more another round of ridicule for Edwards than a case about the complicated nuances of campaign-finance law.

“I want to make sure that everyone hears from me and from my voice,” Edwards said into the microphone. “While I do not believe that I did anything illegal or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong, and there is no one else responsible for my sins.”

He said he and he alone was responsible, that those who testified against him and others were not the ones to be faulted. “I am responsible,” he said. “And if I want to find the person who should be held accountable, honestly, I don’t have to go any further than the mirror. It is me and me alone.”

Edwards thanked his parents, who have been driving to Greensboro each day from their home in Robbins, for being there with him. He praised his daughter Cate, 30, a newlywed and Harvard law school graduate, for her unflinching support during a trial that dished up ugly scenes about her father and late mother, Elizabeth, who died in December 2010 from a long battle with cancer.

Edwards mentioned Emma Claire, now 14, and Jack, her younger brother, and how he had been unable to drive them to school as much during the trial, but was happy they could all eat supper together each night afterward.

He choked up talking about Quinn, 4, the daughter born from his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter. He called her his “precious” Quinn, and then, choked with emotion, he continued, “I love her more than you could ever know.”

The prosecutors left without commenting. Jurors were escorted to their cars and also left without comment. Eagles said she would withhold jurors’ names and hometowns until June 7.

‘We prayed for this’

The man who was pulled into the courthouse because of an extramarital affair that shattered his family-man image hugged his family and members of his legal team in a quiet celebration after the jury’s decisions were announced.

As the lawyers tended to more legal matters, Edwards’ parents sat in the courtroom waiting, trying to keep to themselves among a crowd of reporters.

“We prayed for this, and God answered our prayers,” Bobbie Edwards said in response to one question.

Wallace Edwards pointed to the smile spread across his face and said, “This says it all.”

The jury in its ninth day of deliberations sent a note to the judge at 2:05 p.m. that said, “We have finished our deliberations and have arrived at a decision on counts one through six.”

Eagles initially misinterpreted the note as word of a final verdict, but it soon emerged that the jury’s “decision” was that jurors could not agree on five counts and did unanimously agree on count three. Eagles sent the jury back to deliberate further, but they sent word shortly after 4 p.m. that they could not agree on the five counts.

At the heart of the case was a question of intent: Did Edwards know he was breaking the law?

The government contended Edwards schemed to cover up his affair by tapping two wealthy supporters for hundreds of thousands of dollars that should have been declared as campaign contributions. Edwards’ lawyers said the former senator had behaved poorly, but he had not acted criminally, that his efforts to hide his pregnant mistress were rooted in an effort to keep his infidelity from his wife.

The Public Integrity Section

The trial has not only raised questions about what the former presidential candidate was thinking as his pregnant mistress, former political aide and the aide’s family hopscotched from fancy hotel to pricey villa to California mansions in late 2007 and 2008, hoping to outrun National Enquirer reporters.

There also have been many questions about the government’s protracted investigation and continued pursuit of a case against Edwards.

In many ways, the trial of the former presidential candidate also puts the Justice Department’s small Public Integrity Section on trial – particularly after the 2007 bungling of a corruption case against then-Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. The revelation that prosecutors in that case failed to disclose key evidence to the defense led to the voiding of the verdict against Stevens, who died in a 2010 plane crash, and an investigation into professional practices of the section.

A ‘hollow’ victory

Hampton Dellinger, a Triangle-based lawyer who was inside the courtroom for most of the trial, said the jury’s decision did not excuse the bad judgment and poor conduct of the defendant, nor did it erase the troubling aspects of financing a political campaign.

“But it does raise a serious question about whether a felony criminal case was the right approach, particularly when no politician had been indicted for something similar before,” Dellinger said.

The case also raises many questions about rulings made during the trial by Eagles, a federal judge since late 2010 after being appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama.

Eagles would not let two former Federal Election Commission chairmen testify as expert witnesses about their opinions of whether the payments from Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron should have been classified as campaign contributions.

Steve Friedland, an Elon University law school professor and former prosecutor, said the trial’s conclusion could be seen as a victory for Edwards, but at what cost?

“Regardless of the decision, he still is Exhibit A for how we do not want our leaders to behave,” Friedland said. “This is a huge victory for him, and big burden off his shoulders, but a hollow one given his astounding fall from grace.”

Staff writer Rosella Age contributed.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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