John Edwards

05.10.12

The Prosecution Rests: Trial Now in Edwards Defense Team's Hands

Before passing the baton to John Edwards's attorneys, prosecutors landed a final blow: a 2008 interview in which the senator contradicted his defense team's strategy. By Diane Dimond

Now it is John Edwards's turn to tell his side of the story.

After 14 days of testimony from 22 witnesses, federal prosecutors conducting the campaign-finance corruption trial against the disgraced senator have passed the baton to the defense team.

Proceedings ended in dramatic fashion with the jury hearing from John Edwards himself—via a 20-minute taped interview he gave to ABC News in August 2008. If Edwards chooses not to take the stand during his criminal trial that tape will remain the only time the court hears him address the core issues in the case.

As the video began to play, the jurors leaned forward to watch it on a big screen in front of the jury box. ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff begins the segment by asking, “Did you have an affair with Miss Hunter?” Edwards, who appears tanned and relaxed in an open-collared blue oxford shirt, posed strategically in front of a stone fireplace inside his North Carolina estate, admits he was unfaithful to his wife, Elizabeth. He explains that it was a short affair, that it occurred in 2006, and that he had told his wife all about his “serious mistake” shortly after it ended.

Woodruff pressed about whether the affair was completely over. “How long did it last and when exactly did it end?”

“Here’s how I feel about his, Bob,” Edwards says with a slow Southern smile. “My family is entitled to every detail. They have been told every detail, Elizabeth knows absolutely everything. I think that’s where it stops in terms of the public... It’s been over for a long time.”

Not once during the playing of the ABC News tape did any juror look away from the monitor.

The jury, however, has heard much testimony about how the politician’s affair with Rielle Hunter not only went on for years, but resulted in a baby. And Edwards’s video claim that his wife had learned “absolutely everything” years ago goes against his defense team’s current strategy. It has been repeatedly claimed that the need to hide the pregnant Hunter—and then the baby—was to keep the news from Elizabeth Edwards, and not, as the prosecution claims, to save his presidential campaign.

Woodruff specifically asks Edwards about Hunter’s child. Is he the father?

“Not true, not true,” says Edwards without batting an eye. And he reminds the reporter that the story claiming he is the father was published in a supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer. “I know that it’s not possible,” he says, adding that he would welcome a paternity test.

The jury—and the rest of America—now knows John Edwards is the father of Hunter’s daughter. He publicly admitted it in a statement issued right before a tell-all book about the scandal hit bookstores. By then, baby Frances Quinn was nearly 2 years old.

More relevant to this federal felony case against the 58-year-old Edwards was what he had to say to ABC News about reports that his billionaire friend, the late Fred Baron, was bankrolling Hunter and the baby’s lavish lifestyle in California as a favor to Edwards. “I know absolutely nothing about this," he tells Woodruff. "This is the first time I knew anything about it.”

Video screenshot

Diane Dimond reports that the prosecution rests its case.

If the jurors remember the multiple witnesses who have testified that Baron first opened his wallet in December 2006 to hide the pregnant Rielle and the family of campaign aide Andrew Young (the man who falsely claimed paternity), then Edwards’s videotaped denial of any knowledge in August 2008 may ring hollow. How, the jurors might wonder, did John Edwards think his unemployed, debt-ridden mistress and infant child were surviving? His defense team has said Edwards couldn’t dip into his own personal fortune for fear Elizabeth would learn the truth.

The jurors may also remember the testimony of witness John Davis, a former top aide and traveling companion of Edwards. Davis related a story in which he, Edwards, and Fred Baron were on a private jet, sitting knee to knee, when the gregarious Baron began to boast that the “media would never find Rielle because I’ve been moving her around.” Davis testified he became nervous about the conversation and told Baron to stop talking.

Not once during the playing of the ABC News tape did any juror look away from the monitor. They all listened intently to what could be the last time John Edwards’s voice is heard in this courtroom.

“One of the purposes for having this interview with you, Bob, is to tell the truth. So that (people) know the truth, and they know it not from some written statement … they know it from me."

“This was a strong way for the government to close,” North Carolina attorney Hampton Dellinger, who has attended the trial every day, told The Daily Beast. “No question Edwards didn’t tell the truth on that tape. But he also didn’t confess to a crime.”

Another regular observer, lawyer Kieran Shanahan from Raleigh, said the prosecution's decision to play this video convinces him that John Edwards will testify on his own behalf. “I’ve represented both politicians and lawyers in federal courts and you just can’t keep them off the stand … Remember, Edwards made his fortune convincing juries.”

On this last day of prosecution witnesses, the government called Leo Hindery, a wealthy and active Democratic Party operative who served as senior economic policy adviser for Edwards’s last stab at the presidency in 2007-08. Hindery was with the Edwards family in Iowa in January 2008 as they watched their dream dissolve. The campaign’s strategy had always depended on Edwards winning the all-important Iowa caucuses, which, they believed, would propel him to victory. Hindery said that Edwards, upon realizing that he had lost Iowa, immediately instructed him to call Senator Obama’s team and offer up him as a vice presidential running mate. The response from Obama's team was swift: no. Hindery testified that Edwards also expressed interest in the attorney general position, which would have helped him achieve his “long-term” goal of becoming a United States Supreme Court justice.

The New York based Hindery, 64, also provided interesting insight into Andrew Young, the key prosecution witness, and what became of his life after the acrimonious split from John Edwards. He told the court that Andrew and Cheri Young set up a meeting with Hindery at his Manhattan office in February 2009.

“He was as sad a man as I’ve ever been around,” Hindery told the jury. “He asked my advice about writing a book. He was worried about how to pay for the expenses of his family. I told him he had to do what was in the best interest of his family.”

“Mr. Young was concerned about his economic condition?" defense lawyer Abbe Lowell asked on cross-examination. "Did he mention that he’d received $725,000 from (Edwards supporter) Mrs. Mellon?"

“No,” Hindery answered.

“And he never told you about the $335,000 Mr. Baron gave him, correct?”

“Yes, correct,” answered Hindery.

“And did he tell you he kept a million dollars that flowed through his back account?” Lowell asked.

“He did not.”

The two final witnesses were special agents of the FBI. One entered into the record a forensic analysis of a slew of telephone numbers—some identified as Andrew Young’s, some originating from Mrs. Bunny Mellon’s Virginia estate, and still others belonging to Rielle Hunter and her friend Mimi Hochman.

The other FBI agent had analyzed a pile of bills from the days when Hunter and the Youngs were on the run and in hiding from the media. As they were presented to the jury it was easy to follow that all expenses had been paid for by Fred Baron—and the amounts were staggering. Beginning in December 2006 the nomads took at least $81,000 worth of private jet travel. They racked up luxury hotel bills of more than $43,000. And they got a $58,667 down payment for a lavish rental home in Santa Barbara. Each month, from February through June 2008, Baron also wrote a check for the $20,000 dollar rent and covered other incidental expenses.

The defense is expected to call its witnesses on Monday.