John Edwards Verdict: Why Johnny Walked on a Mistrial

The jury in the John Edwards campaign-finance trial found him not guilty on one count.

Chuck Burton / AP Photo

Johnny Reid Edwards got off scot free.

The former United States senator and two-time presidential candidate has been found not guilty on one charge of accepting an illegal campaign contribution during the 2007-2008 presidential campaign cycle—money he allegedly received from billionaire supporter Rachel “Bunny” Mellon in 2008. The jury could not come to a unanimous decision on five other related charges, so Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial on the balance of the six-count federal indictment.

Outside of the courtroom, Edwards was apologetic. “I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong,” he said—but insisted that none of it was illegal. “Thank goodness we live in a country that has the kind of system that we have.”

Bunny Mellon and the late campaign-finance chairman Fred Baron gave about a million dollars to the Edwards campaign, which was used to hide and house the candidate’s pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, and later their baby. Federal prosecutors maintained that those payments constituted illegal contributions far exceeding the limit allowed by law. The defense argued that they were intended only to hide Ms. Hunter from Mr. Edwards’s cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, to spare her and the rest of his family public humiliation.

It was an unusual afternoon leading up to the stunning final verdict. After lunch, the jury sent a note to the judge; the waiting media and curious public was told, “We have a verdict.” There followed an excruciating 25-minute wait inside the packed and silent courtroom. The center of attention, of course, was John Edwards, who sat stoically at the defense table surrounded by his lawyers, nervously sipping water out of a styrofoam cup. His 30-year-old daughter Cate, who had given him a final pat on the back and whispered words of encouragement as they all sat down to wait, sat behind her father with Edwards’s elderly parents, Wallace and Bobbie.

Finally, Judge Eagles appeared to read the jury’s note to the court—and caution spectators about making any noise after the jury foreman announced their verdict.

But to everyone’s astonishment, there was no final verdict. The foreman nervously answered that the jury had not been able to reach a unanimous decision on five of the six counts. “Only on count three, Your Honor,” the unidentified foreman said. After some discussion outside the presence of the jury, the panel was called back into the room and the judge administered what’s called an Allen charge: instructions to the jurors to go back and keep trying until they either reached a unanimous decision or sent her a note declaring that unanimity was impossible. Within 30 minutes, another note from the jury deliberation room appeared, and the final verdict was read.

John Edwards broke out in a beaming smile. He immediately rose to hug his daughter Cate. He squeezed his parents tightly in a double hug, and whispered to his mother: “I told you it would be okay!”

As Edwards and his attorneys were escorted away to take care of final paperwork, the defendant’s parents leaned back in the front bench, their usual spot during this six-week proceeding. Asked how he felt, Edwards Sr. displayed the same broad smile as his son and said only: “This says it all.” Mrs. Edwards could only say: “I’m just too emotional right now.”

A mistrial preserves the government’s right to retry Edwards on those counts the jury could not agree upon. But this unprecedented investigation and case has been estimated to have cost the government about two million dollars, and it seems unlikely the Justice Department will decide to try it again.

In the end, at least some members of the jury appear to have been swayed by Edwards’s defense that he knew nothing about the checks from Bunny Mellon or the extent of Fred Baron’s financial assistance. Court watchers found it odd that the defense team never explained just how Edwards thought his unemployed and debt-plagued pregnant mistress was surviving. But those questions apparently didn’t bother the jury. The sharp thrust of the defense was instead pointed at former Edwards staffer Andrew Young, who was painted as the scheming aide who lined his own pockets with donated money while escorting the mistress to and from farflung hiding places in Florida, Colorado, and California. This strategy clearly generated enough reasonable doubt to split the jury.

Now that the 58-year-old Edwards has been let go, there is speculation about what he might do next. His former speechwriter Wendy Button testified that at one time Edwards planned to open up a law firm that catered to the poor. Perhaps the former politician will return to that idea some day, but he will have to take steps to reactivate his law license, which went into inactive status years ago. A new law practice might succeed as Edwards still holds the record for winning North Carolina’s largest personal-injury suit ever. But for now, the multi-millionaire widower has two children at home in Chapel Hill to raise, Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10. And of course, there is his love child, 4-year-old Quinn, who lives with her mother in Charlotte, where Edwards has been spotted having dinner with his other family on occasion. Now that the trial is behind him John Edwards must finally take care of that situation, too.

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It was a stunning conclusion to a saga whose genesis can be traced to the spring of 2007, when a dogged reporter whose identity is lost to history discovered two receipts buried deep within federal election reporting documents. The receipts showed that Edwards had spent $400 on each of two haircuts, and the media made hay of the story, mocking the “pretty boy” with the anti-poverty campaign platform. The haircut brouhaha prompted billionaire Bunny Melon, then 97, to take up pen and paper and write to Senator Edwards’s righthand man, Andrew Young, that she would like help the campaign financially. That note, requested by the jury on day one of their deliberations, would ultimately lead to Mellon writing checks totaling $725,000—money that would go toward hiding the candidate’s unpredictable mistress.

After 17 full days of testimony from 31 witnesses, and countless piles of financial and phone records, Edwards and some of the jurors looked at times as if they could take no more. There were moments of high drama, such as when the defendant’s daughter Cate ran from the courtroom during testimony about her mother’s emotional meltdown on an airport tarmac. And there were times of tense combativeness, like when Andrew Young’s wife, Cheri, a tiny 38-year- old in a bright summer dress, battled back her cross examiner like a heavyweight champ.

After a rather dull closing defense case in which a forensic numbers-cruncher testified about reams of phone numbers and bank statements, closing arguments seemed to snap the jurors back to full attention. As the deliberations began the panel quickly settled in, asking for office supplies, including an extra-large tablet of poster paper and a sizable list of exhibits. But by the end of their second day of deliberating, the jurors appeared moody when they would enter the courtroom to ask additional questions or request more evidence. Eyes were downcast and no juror looked at the defendant. Jurors No. 7 and 11 entered with their arms crossed over their chests.

The eight men and four women who made up the jury are a diverse group. Four are black, one man appears to be Hispanic, and the rest are white. Their occupations vary widely—there is a special education teacher, a customer service representative, a retired railway worker, two mechanics, a retired police/fire department worker, and three men with backgrounds in finance. (Juror No. 2, widely believed to be the foreman, is a financial consultant.) Their ages look to be between 35 and 65. And while some, like the railroad worker, appeared to take lots of notes during testimony, other jurors took almost none. At least two were often seen with their eyes closed during testimony, causing some in the gallery to wonder if they were sleeping.

During deliberations, the panel seemed to get mired in the so-called Bunny Money issue, and asked to see several exhibits related to the 101-year-old widow of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon. Bunny Mellon and her close friend, interior decorator Bryan Huffman, concocted a plan to get Mellon’s checks to the candidate by making them out in Huffman’s name and disguising them as payments for expensive furniture. Huffman would then endorse the checks over to Andrew Young to be used for whatever the senator might need. Through this method, Huffman explained in court, Mellon hoped to keep the true nature of the checks from her estate attorney, Alexander Forger, who had been after her to stop giving away so much money.

Among the first batch of items the jury wanted to study was a handwritten note Huffman sent with one of Mrs. Mellon’s checks. It read simply, “Andrew, As Bunny says, ‘For the Rescue of America!” They also asked to see all of Mellon’s handwritten notes addressed to either Young or Edwards. In one short letter to the politician Mellon wrote, “You are the most charming mixture of dynamic energy and quiet sensitivity. We will save America and have a wonderful time doing it.”

Bunny Mellon had been told by Young that the candidate needed a stream of money for a “personal reason,” but it seemed clear from the testimony that the elderly benefactor wanted Edwards to wind up in the White House and hoped her money would help him get there.

The defense had maintained that the money from Mellon and Baron was never intended as a campaign contribution, that it was instead to hide Edwards’s mistress so that Elizabeth wouldn’t know about the continuing affair and the expected baby. Accepting financial help from friends had nothing to do with the presidential campaign, according to Edwards’s attorney Abbe Lowell. This was the point on which the defense’s argument revolved, but the notes from Mellon appeared to negate it.

Count one in the indictment accused John Edwards of “knowingly and willfully” conspiring to cover up his embarrassing situation with illegally received largesse. Counts two and three (the only one in which a verdict was reached) related to the monies Bunny Mellon gave in 2007 and 2008. Counts four and five related to money, travel expenses, and other in-kind gifts given by the late Fred Baron. Count six charged that Edwards deliberately kept information about the alleged contributions from those on his staff who should have reported them to the Federal Elections Commission and therefore aided and abetted the offense of filing false reports with the government.

In her final instructions to the jury, Judge Catherine Eagles seemed to give advantage to the government’s case. The defense had repeatedly cited a portion of the Federal Election Act that states that a donation to a campaign constitutes an official contribution if “it is for the purpose of influencing an election.” Lowell stressed the words “the purpose,” as if to argue that influencing a campaign had to be the only reason a person gave their money. But Judge Eagles instructed the jury that they need not find that the money was given for “the sole purpose” of influencing an election “because people rarely act with only one purpose in mind.”

Further, the judge told the jury that if they found John Edwards had willfully closed his eyes to the facts in the case (i.e., the financial arrangements others had made to hide and house his mistress Rielle Hunter) then the jury could decide that satisfied the standard that he “knowingly” broke the law. Judge Eagles offered no specific guidelines to the jury to help them decide what “willfully” might constitute.

But many thought the Edwards team suffered its worst blow when the judge instructed jurors that during deliberations they could take into account the “donative intent”—what the donor of the money had in mind upon giving it. Mellon, who is closing in on her 102nd birthday and struggles with poor hearing and blindness due to macular degeneration, was not called as a witness, but her handwritten notes spoke volumes about her intent as a donor. Fred Baron was Edwards’s campaign finance chairman and his motivations in donating were portrayed during trial as predominantly campaign-oriented, as well. In addition, former campaign staffer John Davis testified that he was on a private jet with Baron and Edwards when the Texas billionaire openly bragged about moving Rielle Hunter from place to place so the media would never find her. Davis concluded that since they were all sitting “knee-to-knee” in the small plane, Edwards had to have known about the Hide Hunter project despite his repeated denials.

The jury’s job in sorting out these accusations was made more complex by the fact that most of the major players in this made-for-the-movies drama never even testified. The aging Bunny Mellon, whose health is failing, was not called to the stand. Fred Baron, whose name was mentioned so often during the trial, passed away in October 2008. Elizabeth Edwards died of cancer in December 2010. And neither the prosecution nor the defense decided to call either Edwards’s daughter Cate or the capricious “other woman,” Rielle Hunter. And, of course, Edwards himself did not testify, despite his vast experience in swaying juries as a trial lawyer.

Perhaps it was that very experience that led Edwards and his team to decide to keep him off the stand, a move that would have opened him up to a witheringhigh-profile cross examination. Whatever it was, their strategy worked against long odds. With this split decision, Edwards is only partially vindicated, however—the scandal will certainly be, as they say, the first line of his obituary. For the man who was once within arm’s reach of the world’s most powerful job, the whole sordid narrative is now on record for the world to see from beginning to end, a cautionary tale for men of power everywhere.