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World & Nation

John Edwards owns up to ‘sins’ in wake of mistrial

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Justice Department’s attempt to convict John Edwards of campaign finance fraud failed Thursday, with a federal jury rejecting the complex felony case against him. But minutes later, Edwards himself delivered an abject confession and apology on the courthouse steps with his family at his side.

“While I do not believe I ever did anything illegal … I’ve done an awful, awful lot that was wrong,” Edwards said after jurors found him not guilty of one charge of violating federal election laws. The judge had declared a mistrial after jurors deadlocked on five other charges.

Flanked by his elderly parents and his oldest daughter, Cate, the former candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination said he alone was responsible for the illicit affair that destroyed his marriage, ended his political career and tarnished his reputation. Prosecutors had focused on his furtive romance with Rielle Hunter, eliciting withering testimony that he lied about it and tried to cover it up.

“There is no one else who is responsible for my sins,” Edwards told reporters Thursday. “I am responsible.... It is me and me alone.”

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In what seemed an offer of heartfelt contrition and the beginning of a campaign to rehabilitate his image, Edwards spoke of his love for his children — including Frances Quinn Hunter, the daughter he fathered with Rielle Hunter, but who he once denied was his child. He said he would “dedicate [his] life to being the best dad I think I can be” and to helping poor children.

A jury of eight men and four women deliberated for more than 50 hours over nine days before telling U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles on Thursday afternoon that they were deadlocked over the five charges. Just 20 minutes after the judge asked them to resume deliberations and try to reach unanimous verdicts, the jurors returned to report that they were still hopelessly deadlocked.

Eagles asked the jury foreman, a financial consultant, whether further deliberation would likely lead to verdicts. “No, your honor,” he replied.

The Justice Department must now decide whether to retry Edwards on the five counts. A spokeswoman in Washington, Alisa Finelli, said the department had no immediate comment.

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Edwards, 58, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, was charged with “knowingly and willingly” accepting illegal campaign contributions from two wealthy donors to help hide the affair and save his campaign for the 2008 nomination from collapsing in scandal. One count charged Edwards with conspiring to accept the payments and to conceal them through “trick, scheme or device.”

He had faced up to 30 years in jail and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.

Edwards’ lawyers conceded that he was a philandering husband who had lied to his cancer-stricken wife and to voters. But they said the payments were private gifts intended to hide the ongoing affair — and Quinn — from Elizabeth Edwards, who was in failing health. She died of cancer in December 2010.

The narrative of the four-week trial was dominated by salacious details of Edwards’ affair, but the outcome hinged on the intricacies of densely written federal campaign finance laws. In the end, jurors decided that Edwards did not violate those laws regarding a $200,000 check in 2008 from billionaire heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. They did not indicate which way the panel was leaning on the five deadlocked charges.

Edwards, deeply tanned and wearing his customary dark suit and green tie, leaned back in his chair at the defense table and exhaled when the not-guilty verdict was read aloud. Moments later, he reached across the courtroom bar to hug Cate, 30, a lawyer herself.

A highly successful personal injury lawyer, he gave bear hugs to his three attorneys, including lead counsel Abbe Lowell, telling them: “Thank you. Thank you all.”

Just before the jury’s decision, Cate had touched her father’s shoulder and whispered: “Dad, I love you.” She attended the trial every day, escorting Edwards though the daily gantlet of TV cameras in front of the courthouse.

Cate “never flinched,” her father told reporters later, “no matter how awful and painful a lot of the evidence was about” her unfaithful father and her late mother, who testimony showed was increasingly distraught over her suspicions about the affair.

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Asked in the courtroom how he felt about the jury’s decision, Edwards’ father, Wallace Edwards, 80, pointed to the smile on his lips and said: “This says it all.”

Edwards’ mother, Bobbie, 78, who — along with her husband and Cate sat behind Edwards throughout the trial — said, “We prayed for this and God answered our prayers.”

The jurors had initially confused the judge Thursday by delivering a handwritten note that said: “We have finished our deliberations and have arrived at our decisions on counts one through six.”

Eagles later conceded that she interpreted the note to mean jurors had reached unanimous verdicts on all six counts. When she realized they were deadlocked on five counts, she asked them to try again to reach unanimous verdicts.

The trial featured two main characters who were exposed in testimony as liars with tarnished reputations — Edwards and his former aide, Andrew Young.

The prosecution portrayed Edwards as a manipulative, scheming politician who orchestrated payments totaling $925,000 to cover up the affair. They built their case around Young, who testified under a grant of immunity.

Young said Edwards solicited the payments, kept abreast of the scheme and even persuaded Young to falsely claim that he had fathered Hunter’s child. But testimony revealed that Young and his wife kept much of the money for themselves, and kept phony records to cover it up.

The money came from Mellon, 101, and from Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who was Edwards’ campaign finance chairman. Baron died in 2008. Mellon, whose eyesight and hearing are failing, was not called to testify.

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In three weeks of testimony by 24 witnesses, prosecutors focused on the tawdry details of the affair and the attempts to keep it secret. Jurors heard descriptions of madcap trips across the country to hide a pregnant Hunter — and later her daughter — from pursuing National Enquirer reporters.

The case was unprecedented; no major political candidate has been charged with campaign finance corruption for attempts to hide a mistress. Hampton Dellinger, a North Carolina lawyer who has taught election law at Duke University and attended the trial, said Edwards was the most prominent American lawyer put on trial since Clarence Darrow.

Edwards’ lawyers mounted a two-pronged defense. They attempted to discredit Young as an opportunist seeking revenge against his former boss — and argued that under federal election law the payments were private gifts, not campaign contributions.

The chief financial officer for Edwards’ 2008 campaign testified that the Federal Election Commission did not require her to report the payments as campaign contributions — even after Edwards was indicted last year. And a former FEC commissioner, Scott Thomas, testified that in his 37 years of experience, no one had been prosecuted for payments from a third party to cover up an affair.

The defense called only seven witnesses from an original list of 65, and spent little more than two days to present its case. Considerable testimony focused on how the Youngs kept a phony set of books to make it appear that all payments went to support Hunter.

The defense showed in hours of testimony from a financial expert that the Youngs used the money to build a $1.6 million mansion and to embark on vacations and shopping sprees. Andrew Young even spent $35,000 on porcelain veneers for his teeth.

“They could shame Bonnie and Clyde,” defense attorney Lowell told the jury, referring to the Youngs.

Prosecutors responded by saying Young was the “perfect fall guy” for Edwards, and that the hapless Young had been “thrown under the bus” by his boss after years as a loyal aide.

Eagles told jurors that prosecutors did not have to prove that the sole purpose of the payments was to influence the election — only that there was a “real purpose or an intended purpose” to do so.

“On the other hand,” Eagles instructed jurors, “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.”

Jurors asked to review more than 60 exhibits about the payments. In one handwritten note to Young in 2007, following embarrassing media reports about a $400 haircut Edwards charged as a campaign expense, Mellon asked that future bills for “haircuts, etc., that are a necessary and important part of his campaign” be sent to her.

“It is a way to help our friends without government restrictions,” Mellon wrote.

Prosecutors closed their case with an August 2008 television interview Edwards gave to ABC News. In court, Edwards watched himself lie on national TV, claiming the affair was brief and that he was not Quinn’s father.

The prosecution hoped jurors who watched Edwards lie would conclude that he was also lying when he said — in the TV interview and through his lawyers in court — that he did not know about the payments.

The defense sought to sever the link between what Lowell called Edwards’ “bad marriage conduct” and his lies about the affair.

“This is a case that should define the difference between someone committing a wrong and committing a crime,” Lowell told the jury. “John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those.”

On the courthouse steps Thursday, Edwards squinted into the late-afternoon sun and spoke in the soaring, elegiac tones so familiar from his campaigns for senator and president.

“I don’t think God is through with me,” he said. “I really believe he still thinks there are some good things I can do.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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