National/World

Prosecutors give closing argument in Edwards trial

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Prosecutors used John Edwards' own political rhetoric about the two Americas in their closing arguments Thursday, saying he was a seasoned politician who flouted campaign finance laws meant to give the rich and the poor an equal say in elections.

Edwards is accused of orchestrating a scheme to take about $1 million from two wealthy campaign donors to hide his pregnant mistress Rielle Hunter while he ran for the White House in 2008. During that campaign, Edwards often talked about the two Americas, referring to the wealthy and those who live paycheck to paycheck.

"Campaign finance laws are designed to bring the two Americas together at election time," prosecutor Bobby Higdon said. "John Edwards forgot his own rhetoric."

Prosecutors also recounted Edwards' announcement on Dec. 30, 2006, to run for president.

"He wanted to be our leader. He asked for our vote. He had a popular wife and beautiful family, and on that day, the seeds of his destruction were sown."

Prosecutors described the lurid details of his affair with Hunter and the plan to have his close aide Andrew Young claim paternity of Edwards' child with Hunter. Edwards knew if the affair became public, it would destroy his political career, and he would "deny, deceive and manipulate" at every turn, Higdon said, rehashing a theme prosecutors have used throughout the trial.

Edwards was well aware of $2,300 campaign donation limit, Higdon said.

"It is a simple rule and applies to every candidate and every donor," Higdon said.

Edwards' attorneys have said the government failed to present any direct evidence that he intended to break campaign finance laws. Defense attorneys will get two hours to present their final arguments. Defense lawyers will likely argue that Edwards had limited knowledge of the cover-up and that the payments were gifts intended to keep his cancer-stricken wife from leaning about the affair and pregnancy.

The prosecution will get another 30 minutes, and jury deliberations are expected to begin Friday.

Edwards faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.

At the trial, prosecutors have shown two members of Edwards' inner circle, campaign finance chairman Fred Baron and Young, engaged in a yearlong cover-up to hide the married presidential candidate's mistress from the media.

Prosecutors described how Edwards became increasingly desperate to hide the affair, saying after Hunter was photographed by the National Enquirer in December 2007, Edwards asked Young to claim paternity.

On one day that month, there were five phone calls between Edwards and Young, and three calls between Young and Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer.

Baron 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.

"This wasn't a guy quietly helping a friend. It was a full rescue operation ... for a teetering campaign," Higdon said, describing Baron's involvement.

In January 2008, while the Youngs and Hunter were hiding in the rental mansion, there were 63 calls between them and Edwards, Higdon said. Sometimes there were four calls a day, lasting as long as 90 minutes.

"The whole scheme was cooked up to support John Edwards' political ambitions," Higdon said.

The Youngs also received $725,000 in secret checks from an elderly heiress, using some of the money to care for Hunter.

Edwards' team wrapped up their defense Wednesday without calling him, his mistress or daughter to testify, a move experts said was intended to shift focus from a political sex scandal to the nitty-gritty of campaign finance law.

"The defense wasn't sexy, but the defense doesn't want sexy. It wants an acquittal," said Steve Friedland, a professor at Elon University School of Law and former federal prosecutor who has attended much of the trial.

Experts said Edwards' bare-bone defense, which lasted just over two days, may be enough to avoid conviction.

The prosecution presented nearly three weeks of evidence and testimony from a former Edwards aide and campaign advisors that painted Edwards as a frequent liar, but showed no direct evidence he intended to break federal campaign finance laws, the experts said.

Many observers 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 and Hunter on the stand would have exposed the defense to withering cross-examination about Edwards' past lies and personal failings.

"The defense may very well have felt that their case was solid enough to go to the jury without the risk of the personal testimony of these witnesses, which would undoubtedly resurrect the salacious details of the affair for the jury," said Catherine Dunham, another Elon law professor who has been attending the trial.

The former Democratic presidential candidate 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.

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.

But 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.

"There was no direct evidence that John Edwards knew he was violating campaign contribution laws," Friedland said. "Juries like smoking guns. There were no smoking guns here."

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