GREENSBORO, N.C. — Johnny Reid Edwards, a honey-voiced North Carolina lawyer who parlayed his boyish good looks and inspiring personal history as the son of a mill-worker into a meteoric political rise, was acquitted of one count Thursday in a corruption case, as the judge declared a mistrial on five other charges on which the jury was deadlocked.
Edwards emerged from the courthouse with his daughter and parents by his side to deliver remarks that sounded more like repentance than triumph. He lamented his “sins” and said he would not have to go far to find who is responsible. “I don’t have to go any further than the mirror,” he said. “It’s me and me alone.”
Edwards made no mention of Rielle Hunter, the videographer he had carried on a torrid affair with during his 2008 presidential campaign. But his voice cracked with emotion when he spoke of the child she bore him, “my precious Quinn, who I love more than any of you could ever imagine.”
And he suggested there might be a future for him in public life, citing his concerns about poverty, the signature issue of his failed campaign. “I don’t think God is through with me.”
The mixed result in a trial that laid bare Edwards’s sexual indiscretions and serial deceptions came after nine days of jury deliberations.
In four weeks of testimony, Edwards was portrayed by a parade of witnesses as a scheming and manipulative politician, but at least some jurors remained unconvinced that he orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy to secretly funnel nearly $1 million that should have been declared as campaign contributions to his mistress and the aides who helped him hide an extramarital affair during the 2008 presidential campaign.
When the decision was read by the clerk, Edwards’s face betrayed no emotion, but he slumped back in his chair. Moments later, he turned to his parents, Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, and they smiled at him broadly.
When the jury left the courtroom, Edwards rose and leaned across the bar in a long embrace with his daughter, Cate Edwards, who has been in the courtroom almost every day through a grueling trial.
That embrace was followed by another long hug with his parents, tears welling in his aging mother’s eyes. Asked how he felt, Wallace Edwards pointed at his smile. “This says it all,” he said. Bobbie Edwards, in a voice trembling with emotion, added, “We prayed for this, so God has answered our prayers.”
The only count that the jury reached a verdict on dealt with $200,000 in payments from Virgina heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon that were deposited after Edwards dropped out of the 2008 presidential race. Prosecutors failed to persuade jurors that the payments should be considered campaign contributions because Edwards was angling to become the Democrat’s vice presidential nominee or be tapped as attorney general or Supreme Court justice.
The verdict and the mistrial on the other charges represents some measure of vindication for Edwards who has suffered through a long, slow tumble from grace after revelations in 2008 of the extramarital affair he tried to conceal during his 2008 presidential campaign. But it’s still unlikely to rehabilitate the irretrievably tarnished legacy of a political star who came within a few swing states of ascending to the vice presidency in 2004 when he was the running mate of presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)
Edwards, a 58-year-old Democrat who served one term in the U.S. Senate, has become such a pariah here that many of his closest friends and supporters have cut off ties with him. During many days of the trial, his 30-year-old daughter Cate was the sum total of his support network inside the court, though his elderly parents also spent considerable time there in the final days of testimony.
Edwards’s downfall can be traced back to a chance 2006 encounter in a New York hotel with Rielle Hunter, an eccentric videographer who walked up to him, said, “You’re so hot,” and handed him a business card that read: “Rielle Hunter: Being is free.” Edwards and Hunter soon began an affair, which Edwards continued even after it was discovered by his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who was battling the cancer that took her life in 2010.
Elizabeth Edwards was so consumed and pained by her husband’s lies that she demanded phone records from campaign staffers to see whether he was calling Hunter and scoured financial records. Because of his wife’s suspicions, Edwards—who became wealthy as a trial lawyer before entering politics—was unable to use his personal fortune to hide the affair, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors tried to prove that Edwards conspired with his close aide, Andrew Young, and two wealthy donors—the Texas lawyer Fred Baron and Mellon, the Virginia heiress and Kennedy clan intimate—to conceal the affair with Hunter and the child he fathered with her. But they were hampered by a lack of witnesses who could say that Edwards knowingly violated campaign finance laws.
Young—the prosecution’s star witness—was the one person who most definitively stated that Edwards was aware of the money flowing to the coverup and about its possible illegality. But Young’s credibility was undercut by the financial motivations emphasized by Edwards’s defense team.
Young has gained financially from the imbroglio, writing a bestselling book and working on a possible movie deal. Defense attorneys tried to portray him as a liar who could not be trusted, but he gave riveting testimony about plotting with Edwards and supplemented his remarks by giving investigators copies of taped phone conversations with the man he once called “boss.” Young and his wife, Cheri, also held one of the seedier pieces of evidence, a sex tape showing Hunter and Edwards together, though jurors would only hear about it—not see it.
Edwards was judged by a diverse jury in this city of more than a quarter million situated in the rolling hills of North Carolina’s north-central Piedmont region. Among the jurors was a special education teacher, a financial consultant, a corporate vice president, two mechanics and retirees who had worked as a railroad engineer, an accountant and in the fire and police departments.
During long hours of testimony, most jurors seemed to be paying close attention, scribbling notes on legal pads while rocking in the red leather chairs of the jury box across the courtroom from the defense table where Edwards sat.
The blogosphere crackled throughout the trial with conspiracy theories about possible political motivations for the case, both for and against Edwards and his onetime allies in the Democratic party.
The indictment was won by a Republican U.S. attorney, George Holding, who later announced that he was running for Congress and scored a victory in this month’s primary election. But the day-to-day courtroom drama was overseen by an Obama appointee, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles, a soft-voiced jurist who wears her hair in a bun. Eagles sniped frequently at Edwards’s brash Washington-based defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, chiding him over matters of courtroom decorum and twice interrupting his closing arguments.
The proceedings seemed to overwhelm the courthouse, which struggled to manage a tidal wave of spectators and media. In downtown Greensboro, a full lane of traffic was closed outside the courthouse because of the crush of satellite trucks.
Edwards did not take the stand to testify in his own behalf, nor did either side call Hunter. Two other key possible witnesses—Baron and Elizabeth Edwards—are dead. And neither side opted to call Mellon, who is 101 years old. A handwritten note from Mellon saying that she would pay for campaign expenses herself to avoid “government restrictions” was a key piece of prosecution evidence.
The money from Baron and Mellon was used to fly Hunter around the country in private jets, fund her $9,000 a month allowance and keep her quiet so that Edwards’s presidential campaign and later his efforts to be named vice presidential nominee, attorney general or U.S. Supreme Court justice would not be damaged, prosecutors argued. The defense tried to place the responsibility for the coverup on Young, a longtime Edwards aide who even claimed paternity of the child Edwards fathered with Hunter in hopes of protecting his boss.
Lowell, who conceded that Edwards had lied repeatedly about the affair, argued that the deceptions were intended to spare further pain for Elizabeth Edwards—not to further Edwards’s political career. Lowell portrayed Young as an even bigger liar. One of the key defense witnesses—political consultant John Moylan—testified that when Baron learned Young had been soliciting money from Mellon, he responded, “That damn Andrew!”
During deliberations, the case took on something of a circus atmosphere because of the unusual behavior of the alternate jurors. The four alternates dressed in color-coordinated tops for four straight days--yellow last Thursday, red on Friday, black and gray on Tuesday and purple on Wednesday. One of the alternates, a vivacious young woman, smiled frequently at Edwards, leading some court observers to conclude she was flirting with him.
On Wednesday, the judge sent the alternates home, but warned they could be recalled. The judge’s decision to force the alternates to stay at the court for the first eight days of deliberation was unusual, according to legal experts, and even more unorthodox was her decision to let the alternates eat lunch with the main jury, which may have given them opportunity to influence deliberations.