GREENSBORO, N.C. – John Edwards’ defense team rested Wednesday without calling the two-time Democratic presidential candidate or his one-time mistress to the witness stand, a sign of confidence after presenting little more than two days of testimony and evidence.
The defense had called a series of witnesses aimed at shifting the jury’s focus from the lurid details of a political sex scandal to the legal question of whether the Edwards’ actions violated federal campaign finance laws.
Prosecutors spent nearly three weeks trying to convince a jury that Edwards masterminded a conspiracy to use nearly $1 million secretly provided by two wealthy donors to help hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House in 2008.
Many people watching the case believed Edwards would testify so the jury could hear directly from the former U.S. senator and trial lawyer, who had a reputation for his ability to sway jurors. But putting Edwards on the stand was also a gamble: It would have exposed him to withering cross-examination about his past lies and personal failings.
Most experts were convinced calling Hunter to testify would have dredged up more negatives and lies. The defense also elected not to question Edwards’ oldest daughter, Cate, who has sat behind Edwards nearly every day of the trial and could have helped humanize him.
At one point during the trial, she ran out of the courtroom in tears during testimony about her cancer-stricken mother confronting her father about his extramarital affair.
The judge told jurors that no more witnesses would be called. It’s unclear exactly when closing arguments would start, but most likely Thursday.
Edwards is charged with six criminal counts including conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting contributions that exceeded campaign finance limits, and causing his campaign to file a false financial disclosure report.
He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.
Edwards has sat quietly at the defense table throughout his trial, whispering with his lawyers and rarely showing reaction to the often emotional testimony from witnesses who were once among his strongest supporters and closest friends. He has made no public statements since October, following a pre-trial hearing where a judge refused to throw out the criminal case against him.
“After all these years, I finally get my day in court and people get to hear my side of this, and what actually happened,” Edwards said last year on the steps of the federal courthouse in Greensboro. “And what I know with complete and absolute certainty is I didn’t violate campaign laws and I never for a second believed I was violating campaign laws.”
At the trial, prosecutors have shown two members of Edwards’ inner circle, campaign finance chairman Fred Baron and once-close aide Andrew Young, engaged in a yearlong cover-up to hide the married presidential candidate’s mistress from the media. Young, who is married, falsely claimed paternity of his boss’ baby and received $725,000 in secret checks from an elderly heiress, using some of the money to care for Hunter.
Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer, provided Young and Hunter with more than $400,000 in cash, luxury hotels, private jets and a $20,000-a-month rental mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Prosecutors have introduced phone records, voicemails and other evidence showing Edwards was in frequent contact with Baron, Young and Hunter, all while his mistress was in hiding. Former members of Edwards’ campaign also testified that Baron spoke of “moving Hunter around” in the candidate’s presence and that Edwards told his speechwriter he knew “all along” what Baron was up to.
However, in 14 days of testimony, no witness ever said Edwards knew he was violating campaign finance laws, a key element of criminal intent the government must prove to win a conviction.
The defense also undercut the credibility of Young, whom bank records showed siphoned off most of the money from Mellon to build his expansive $1.6 million dream house. Baron wired another $325,000 to the company building Young’s house.
Jurors were also read a stipulation about a sex tape the Youngs had, purportedly showing Edwards and a pregnant Hunter. Jurors were told Andrew Young considered selling the tape, and during his last personal encounter with Edwards on a rural North Carolina road, he told Edwards he had the tape.
The tape had only briefly been mentioned during the trial until Wednesday.
Before his indictment, Edwards rejected a potential plea agreement with federal prosecutors that would have allowed him to serve as little as six months and keep his law license.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina law school, John Edwards made his fortune handling medical malpractice and corporate negligence cases before turning to politics following the death of his 16-year-old son Wade in a 1996 auto accident. Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998 and was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004.
Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, died of cancer in December 2010. He is now a single parent of two school-aged children, ages 13 and 11, who live with their father at the family’s gated estate outside Chapel Hill. Edwards’ 30-year-old daughter Cate is a lawyer who married last year.
After years of denials, Edwards admitted fathering his Hunter’s baby in January 2010, shortly after agreeing to pay child support. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck