Abbe Lowell , a lawyer for John Edwards, enters the federal courthouse for the trial of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday, May 15, 2012. Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations over nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors used to help hide the Democrat’s pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.(AP Photo/The News & Observer, Shawn Rocco)
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Attorneys for John Edwards on Tuesday indicated that their defense in his criminal trial for alleged campaign finance violations is winding down, but they did not say whether the former presidential candidate or his one-time mistress will take the witness stand.
Defense lawyer Abbe Lowell said his team will make a final decision about their remaining witnesses late Tuesday, but it was not immediately clear if that information will be made public before Edwards’ trial resumes Wednesday morning.
After Tuesday’s proceedings wrapped up with testimony focusing on financial records, Lowell said the defense could close out its case by calling Edwards, his oldest daughter Cate and Rielle Hunter, the woman with whom he had an extramarital affair while running for president in 2008.
Defense attorneys could also recall Edwards’ ex-aide Andrew Young, the first witness for the prosecution when the trial began more than three weeks ago.
Lowell told U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles that the defense may call several, all or none of the remaining potential witnesses before resting its case.
“We may also very well be done tomorrow,” Lowell said.
Edwards’ attorneys have called a series of witnesses this week aimed at shifting the jury’s focus from the lurid details of a political sex scandal to the legal question of whether the former North Carolina senator’s actions violated federal campaign finance laws.
Edwards is charged with masterminding a plan to use about $1 million from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress as he ran for the White House in 2008. [auth] He has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts including conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting contributions that exceeded federal limits, and filing false campaign-finance statements. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
To win a conviction, the government must convince jurors that Edwards’ not only knew about the scheme to hide his mistress, but that he knew doing so violated the law and that he did so anyway.
Before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1998, Edwards made a fortune as a personal injury lawyer renowned for his ability to sway jurors to award his clients huge settlements. Edwards’ gifts of persuasion were so renowned within North Carolina that other lawyers would fill the courtroom to hear him deliver a closing argument.
Raleigh defense attorney Kieran J. Shanahan, who knows Edwards from his legal career, has attended nearly every day of his trial. He said he would be shocked if Edwards didn’t take the stand in his own defense.
“The jury wants to hear from him and I believe Edwards wants to testify,” said Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor. “He built his life on making big bets on his ability to convince jurors of his case.”
But taking the stand is not without risk for Edwards. He would expose himself to what would likely be a withering cross-examination from prosecutors about his past lies and personal failings.
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday by playing video of a 2008 national television interview in which Edwards repeatedly lied about his extramarital affair and denied fathering Hunter’s baby. Earlier testimony from a parade of former aides and advisers also painted an unflattering portrait of Edwards.
The defense, in turn, has focused on undermining the credibility of the government’s key witnesses and showing that Edwards and his campaign never touched the money at issue.
Records introduced Tuesday showed Edwards’ 2008 campaign finance chairman, the late Fred Baron, used personal funds to pay Hunter a $9,000 monthly cash allowance, on top of providing flights on private jets, stays at luxury resorts and a $20,000-a-month California rental mansion.
A wealthy Texas trial lawyer, Baron was one of two political supporters who combined gave about $1 million to help hide Hunter. Evidence shows regular deposits from Baron’s account into Hunter’s checking account, the sum totaling $74,000.
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 of cancer.
The timing of the payments is important. The defense has argued that most of the money at issue was spent after Edwards ended his presidential bid in January 2008 and can therefore not be considered a campaign contribution intended to influence the outcome of the election. Prosecutors claim Edwards was still seeking the Democratic vice presidential nomination or a future appointment as attorney general, providing a political motivation to continue hiding his affair.
Though 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 Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, an ardent supporter of Edwards’ campaign. But even if he had, the defense argues, the secret payments were not campaign contributions — bur rather gifts intended to hide Hunter from Edwards’ wife Elizabeth. She died in late 2010 after battling cancer.
The defense has also hammered the credibility of Young, once so close to Edwards he falsely claimed paternity of Hunter’s baby in December 2008 when a tabloid first threatened to expose that Hunter was pregnant. The aide later fell out with Edwards, writing a tell-all book about the affair in 2010 that helped force Edwards to finally acknowledge his paternity.
The defense has used testimony from other witnesses and records entered into evidence to paint Young as a self-interested liar who fabricated whole scenes in his book. They also pointed out instances where Young, who testified under an immunity agreement with the government, contradicted his earlier accounts on the witness stand.
According to financial records introduced Tuesday, the Youngs received a total of $1.07 million from Baron and Mellon in 2007 and 2008. The couple later amended their tax returns for those yeas to indicate they spent about $191,000 on Hunter, paying gift taxes on the money. Defense attorneys argue that number is likely inflated.
Financial records for the couple show most of the money that the Youngs received from Mellon and Baron was spent on the couple’s $1.6 million home in North Carolina.
Earlier Tuesday, Edwards’ former lawyer, Wade Smith, testified about conversations he had with Alex D. Forger, an attorney for Mellon. Forger had earlier testified for prosecutors, saying he told Smith that Edwards acknowledged some of the “Bunny Money” had been given for his benefit.
Smith said Forger misunderstood their conversation.
“I would not ever quote my client to someone else,” Smith testified, saying that would violate attorney-client privilege.
When Edwards’ team rests its case, prosecutors will get the chance to call witnesses for the limited purpose of rebutting the testimony and evidence presented by the defense.
The two sides will then be allotted equal amounts of time to make their closing arguments before the judge instructs the jury on the details of what to consider in arriving at their verdict.
Shanahan predicted the defense will call Cate Edwards, a 30-year-old lawyer, to help humanize her father to jurors. Since Elizabeth Edwards’ death, John Edwards has tried to lead a quiet life in Chapel Hill raising his two school-age children, Emma Claire and Jack. He also financially supports his youngest daughter, Francis Quinn Hunter, who is now 4 and lives in Charlotte with her mother.
Though Rielle Hunter’s name is still on the list of potential witnesses, Shanahan said he would be surprised if the defense calls her to the stand.
Said Shanahan: “To bring in Ms. Hunter brings in a lot of negatives.”