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Closing arguments in John Edwards case focus on former aide

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — He was either a masterful manipulator or he was masterfully manipulated.

John Edwards couldn’t be both when it came to Andrew Young, the campaign lackey who isn’t so unimportant anymore. Even after four weeks of courtroom tension, after 31 witnesses and reams of exhibits, it is the curiously cozy, then brutally nasty relationship between these two men that gives shape and weight to one of the most unusual political corruption cases ever to occupy a docket.

Edwards winced and grimaced, shook his head or tapped his fingers on Thursday as dueling attorneys sought to define whether he or his former confidant is the bigger lout. In closing arguments that drew a crowd that snaked down a sidewalk outside the federal courthouse here, Edwards was variously depicted by the competing sides as the calculating architect of a scheme to hide his extramarital affair — and as an unknowing victim, duped by Young’s plotting. And Young was framed in equally conflicting terms: a witless hanger-on or a greedy conniver.

“This guy is actually a criminal mastermind?” prosecutor David Harbach said after recounting Young’s bumbling job performance and middling career path. “He’s not that smart.” Edwards sized up Young, Harbach said, and decided he had found “the perfect fall guy.”

But that image of ineptness was absent when defense attorney Abbe Lowell was speaking. In his summation, Young and his wife, Cheri, were portrayed as so ruthless that their actions “would have shamed Bonnie and Clyde.” They took advantage of Edwards, who was distracted by his 2008 presidential campaign, and used fears about the discovery of his affair causing his wife more pain to weasel hundreds of thousands of dollars out of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, a Virginia heiress and Kennedy clan pal, Lowell said.

The “Bunny money” — more than $700,000 of it — is at the center of the prosecution’s case, along with an additional $250,000 from Fred Baron, a wealthy trial lawyer who was campaign finance chairman for Edwards’s 2008 campaign.

Prosecutors allege that the money was used to cover up Edwards’s affair with videographer Rielle Hunter and the child he fathered with her while running for president. They argue that the money should have been reported as a campaign donation.

Defense attorneys claim that much of the money ended up in Young’s pocket and that he used it to build a lavish home in North Carolina with a pool and a $100,000 audio-visual system.

Jurors will begin deliberations Friday. If Edwards is convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison.

The case has provided an often uncomfortable window into Edwards’s hidden life, not only his sexual liaisons, but also the fraught relationship with his dying wife, Elizabeth, and his furtive scheming to trade his endorsement for the vice presidential spot on the Democratic ticket or a nomination as attorney general or a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

In February 2008 — the month after Edwards dropped out of the presidential race — Young claimed to be the father of Hunter’s child. Prosecutors said he did so to protect his boss. They played a taped phone conversation on Thursday in which Young discussed the possibility of lying to tabloid reporters who spotted Edwards visiting with Hunter and her baby at the Beverly Hilton hotel.

“Is there any way we can say you were up there visiting me and her?” Young says on the tape.

“Listen to the deference he showed to his boss,” prosecutor Robert Higdon told jurors. “Who’s in charge of this relationship?”

Lowell referenced the same conversation in an attempt to suggest that Young, not Edwards, concocted the deceit.

Jurors ultimately may have to decide which liar they think is more believable. Young has been derided as “dishonest” by prosecution and defense witnesses, while both sides have repeatedly gotten witnesses to say that Edwards lied over and over again about his affair with Hunter.

Higdon told jurors that Edwards’s lies about the affair were like seeds that sprouted into weeds and “began to choke his campaign.” When confronted, Higdon said, Edwards always resorted to the same pattern: “Deny, deceive and manipulate.” When his campaign “body man,” Josh Brumberger — an aide who stayed by the candidate’s side in public at all times — raised concerns about the affair, Edwards denied it, then fired him “because he had the guts to tell the truth.”

Lowell presented another version of the saga, urging jurors to “define the difference between committing a wrong and committing a crime.” Edwards, he said, has already confessed to the wrong, owned up to the “sin” of his affair, Lowell said. For that, the attorney said, Edwards will serve a symbolic “life sentence.”

But the rest, he argued, is a “mess” that jurors have the power to bring to an end. And he even hinted that by clearing Edwards, they could give him a chance to once more shape public opinion: “Perhaps he can speak again for those that don’t have a voice.” He never mentioned, though, that during the trial Edwards never said a word.

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