GREENSBORO, N.C. – John Edwards’ campaign finance fraud case ended in a mistrial Thursday when jurors acquitted him on one of six charges but were unable to decide whether he misused money from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress while he ran for president.
The trial exposed a sordid sex scandal that unfolded while Edwards’ wife was dying of cancer, but prosecutors couldn’t convince jurors that the ex-U.S. senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate masterminded a $1 million cover-up of his affair.
“While I do not believe 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,” Edwards said on the courthouse steps.
He also said he had hope for his future.
“I don’t think God’s through with me. I really believe he thinks there’s still some good things I can do.”
Edwards would have faced up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges. He did not testify, along with his mistress Rielle Hunter and the two donors whose money was at issue.
Jurors acquitted him on a charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions, involving $375,000 from elderly heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon in 2008. He also had been charged with illegally accepting $350,000 from Mellon in 2007, other donations from wealthy Texas attorney Fred Baron, filing a false campaign finance report and conspiracy.
The jurors, who deliberated nine days, did not talk to the media as they left the courthouse. Prosecutors did not immediately comment on whether they would retry Edwards.
Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor and Raleigh defense attorney who has been attending the trial, said he doesn’t think prosecutors will retry the case.
“They got their best witnesses, their best evidence and the judge ruled in their favor on all major evidentiary issues. The jury didn’t believe them,” he said.
The case was thrown into confusion earlier Thursday after observers filled the courtroom expecting to hear a verdict on all six counts. Jurors had sent a note to U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles, reading, “we have finished our deliberations and have arrived at our decision on counts one through six.”
But when the jury came into court, the foreman said jurors only had a decision on one count. Eagles sent jurors back to deliberate. About an hour later, the jury sent another note saying it had exhausted its discussions.
When the not guilty verdict was read, Edwards choked up, put a single finger to his lip and took a moment to compose himself. He turned to his daughter, Cate, in the first row and smiled.
After Eagles declared a mistrial and discharged the jury, Edwards hugged his daughter, his parents and his attorneys. Later, he thanked the jury and his family, even choking up when talking about the daughter he had with his mistress Rielle Hunter.
He called Frances Quinn Hunter precious “whom I love, more than any of you can ever imagine and I am so close to and so, so grateful for. I am grateful for all of my children.”
The trial recounted the most intimate details of Edwards’ affair with Hunter, including reference to a sex tape of the two together that later was ordered destroyed and the drama of Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, tearing off her shirt in front of her husband in a rage about a tabloid report of the affair.
It also featured testimony that sometimes read like political thriller, as aide Andrew Young described meeting Edwards on a secluded road, and Edwards warning him, “you can’t hurt me.”
Prosecutors said Edwards knew of the roughly $1 million being funneled to former aide Andrew Young and Hunter and was well aware of the $2,300 legal limit on campaign donations.
Edwards’ attorneys said prosecutors didn’t prove that Edwards knew that taking the money violated campaign finance law. They said he shouldn’t be convicted for being a liar, and even if he did know about some of the money, it was a gift, not a campaign contribution.
“This is a case that should define the difference between a wrong and a crime ... between a sin and a felony,” attorney Abbe Lowell told the jury. “John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those.”
They also said the money was used to keep the affair hidden from his wife, not to influence his presidential bid.
Baron died in 2008 and Mellon, who is 101 years old, did not testify.
Edwards met Hunter in a New York hotel bar in 2006 and they spent the night together. She soon joined his campaign, and despite a lack of filmmaking experience, the politician arranged a $250,000 contract for her to make a series of behind-the-scenes documentaries from the campaign trail.
Word of the affair eventually got back to Edwards’ wife. On Dec. 30, 2006, the day Edwards officially announced his bid for president at an event in his hometown of Chapel Hill, Elizabeth Edwards bumped into Hunter for the first time and became visibly upset, according to testimony. She told her husband to get rid of her, and while Hunter officially left the campaign, John Edwards continued to meet with her on the road.
Hunter became pregnant in the summer of 2007. As Hunter’s belly began to show that September, tabloid reporters began tailing her. Within weeks, the Youngs had set up Hunter in a $2,700-a-month rental home not far from the Edwards estate in Chapel Hill, using the donated money.
In October 2007, a day after a tabloid reported the affair, Elizabeth Edwards blew up at her husband, according to testimony from former adviser Christina Reynolds. Edwards’ now-deceased wife stormed away from her husband at a private hangar, collapsing into a ball on the pavement. After composing herself in a nearby ladies room, Elizabeth Edwards ripped off her shirt and bra and screamed, “You don’t see me anymore!” As staffers scrambled to cover her up and whisk her into a car, her husband boarded a jet and headed to a campaign event in South Carolina.
That December, in an attempt to contain the scandal, Young issued a statement claiming the baby was his. Prosecutors presented phone records showing Edwards and Young – and Young and Baron – talked with each other that day and claimed they conspired to come up with the plan.
About a month later, Edwards’ presidential campaign began to fold with poor showings in the early presidential primary states. Even before he officially suspended his presidential campaign at the end of January 2008, Edwards had begun wooing the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for a spot in their administration, perhaps as vice president.
Meanwhile, Hunter was on the run with the Youngs. Baron let them stay at his vacation mansion in Aspen and paid for them to live in a $20,000-a-month manor in Santa Barbara, Calif. Hunter gave birth to Francis Quinn Hunter in February 2008.
Records at trial showed Baron paid Hunter a $9,000 monthly cash allowance, on top of providing flights on private jets and stays at luxury resorts.
The deposits began in June 2008 – several months after Edwards ended his White House run – and continued until December 2008, two months after Baron died.
The timing of the payments may have been important. The defense argued most of the money was spent after Edwards ended his presidential bid. Prosecutors claim Edwards was still seeking the Democratic vice presidential nomination or a future appointment as attorney general.
Although Edwards’ attorneys have conceded he had some limited knowledge of Baron’s support for Hunter, they deny he knew anything about $725,000 provided to Young by the wealthy heiress Mellon, an ardent supporter of Edwards’ campaign.
Edwards admitted to the Hunter affair in August 2008. Days later, he met with Young briefly on a secluded road near the Edwards estate outside Chapel Hill. According to Young’s testimony at the trail, the two talked about the secret checks Mellon had provided to the campaign aide.
“I didn’t know about these, did you?” Edwards said, according to Young.
Worried he was being taped, Young lied and said no. Young told Edwards he had kept evidence of the cover-up, including voicemails, emails and the tape that purportedly showed Edwards and Hunter having sex. He said he threatened to go public if Edwards’ didn’t come clean about the baby.
“You can’t hurt me, Andrew,” Edwards told Young as he opened the door to get out, Young said. “You can’t hurt me.”
Edwards announced he was the father of Francis Quinn Hunter in January 2010, nearly two years after she was born and his candidacy ended.
Elizabeth Edwards died in late 2010.
The jurors, whose identities were withheld throughout the trial, asked to see dozens of trial exhibits during deliberations, relating to Mellon and Baron’s donations. Some jurors raised eyebrows in recent days by wearing matching colored shirts to court, and one alternate juror was said to be flirting with Edwards. Eagles warned the jury on its sixth day of deliberations not to discuss the case in small groups.
As Edwards left the courthouse steps, a tabloid reporter asked whether he loved Hunter and would marry her. Edwards did not answer and turned away.