John Edwards trial: Jurors seek information on ‘Bunny’ Mellon’s role

They file past John Edwards each day on their way to lunch, walking in a weaving line within a few feet of where he sits: twelve jurors whose facial expressions, body language and even their wardrobes are parsed for meaning.

 The jurors have now spent more time considering Edwards’s case — approximately 19 hours over 3 1 / 2 days prior to Wednesday’s lunch break — than the former presidential candidate’s lawyers spent on his courtroom defense. They have requested 23 exhibits, each one a piece of evidence introduced by the prosecution during a corruption case now past the midway point of its fifth week.

Gleaning meaning from requests made by a sitting jury can be a treacherous endeavor, fraught with potential for misinterpretation. But one thing is crystal clear: Jurors are looking hard at the relationship between Edwards and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the Virginia heiress who took a shine to the smooth-talking North Carolina lawyer turned senator who believed he could be president of the United States.

The jurors have asked for the handwritten note in which Mellon scrawled in meandering script that she wanted to pay for campaign expenses “without government restrictions,” a missive she sent off in a rage after Edwards was ridiculed for spending $400 of campaign money for a haircut. And the jurors also have asked for another look at the handwritten note from Mellon’s interior designer, Bryan Huffman, saying that a check he was forwarding from the heiress was, “As Bunny says, ‘For the rescue of America.’ ”

Prosecutors had been eager to train the jury’s attention on such notes because they are alleging that more than $700,000 of Mellon’s money was a campaign donation that should have been reported to the Federal Election Commission.

In order to convict Edwards, jurors will have to agree with the prosecution’s contention that the purpose of the payments was to cover up an extramarital affair that could have ruined Edwards’s campaign and later scuttled his ambitions to be named a Supreme Court justice or attorney general. Edwards’s motivation to hide the affair with videographer Rielle Hunter only grew after she became pregnant and bore his child, prosecutors say.

Edwards, who faces six campaign finance and conspiracy counts, could be sentenced to a maximum of 30 years if convicted on all counts. But Hampton Dellinger, a seasoned North Carolina trial attorney, said Wednesday that it’s more likely Edwards would be sentenced to about 4 1 / 2 years if he is convicted because of the effect of federal sentencing guidelines.

 Several of the jurors smiled slightly when they were paraded into the courtroom before their afternoon break, setting off the usual speculative musings: They’re ready to convict! They’re ready to acquit! One juror slouched in his seat with his shirt untucked, leading to theorizing that he would have dressed more neatly if he was about to deliver a verdict that is sure to be followed by camera crews chasing him through a parking lot.

 But no one really knows what’s going on inside the jury room, a private space where a cross-section of North Carolina society — three mechanics, a financial consultant and a corporate vice president among them — wrestle with the biggest case this courthouse has ever seen.

There are just scraps of trivial details to occupy the dozens of reporters and a smattering of dogged residents who await the verdict in the same courtroom where witnesses testified. For those who find no tidbit too inconsequential, it seems the jurors get the munchies. A big load of sodas and chips was wheeled into the courtroom for them Wednesday.

  When they walked past Edwards on Wednesday, the former senator looked directly at them. But the jurors looked away.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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