Edwards gets acquittal and mistrial

John Edwards Mugshot (CNN/U.S. Marshals Service)

GREENSBORO, North Carolina (CNN) — A federal jury in North Carolina acquitted former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards on one count of violating campaign finance law Thursday and deadlocked on the five other counts against him.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial on the remaining counts, leaving prosecutors to decide whether to refile the charges against the onetime North Carolina senator.

Jurors said Thursday afternoon — their ninth day of deliberations — that they had reached a unanimous verdict on only one count, which involved allegations that Edwards had accepted illegal campaign contributions in 2008. Eagles ordered them back into the jury room to continue deliberating, but they returned less than an hour later to announce they were deadlocked.

“This was win for John Edwards, and there will be a lot of questions about why this case was brought,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said after the announcement.

Edwards had been charged with four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions, one count of falsifying documents and one of conspiring to receive and conceal the contributions. The charges could have carried a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.

Jurors last week asked to review all the exhibits, indicating they were in it for the long haul.

Prosecutors said Edwards “knowingly and willingly” accepted almost $1 million from two wealthy donors to hide former mistress Rielle Hunter and her pregnancy, then concealed the donations by filing false and misleading campaign disclosure reports.

Defense attorneys argued that Edwards was guilty of nothing but being a bad husband to his wife, Elizabeth, who died in 2010. They also argued that former Edwards aide Andrew Young used the money for his own gain and to pay for Hunter’s medical expenses to hide the affair from Edwards’ wife.

Neither Edwards nor Hunter testified during the trial. The affair occurred as Edwards was gearing up for a second White House bid in 2008, and he knew his political ambitions depended on keeping his affair with Hunter a secret, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon told jurors in closing arguments.

“There is no question it would destroy the campaign of John Edwards,” Higdon said.

Prosecutors argued that Edwards knowingly violated campaign finance laws by accepting the large contributions from Rachel Mellon and Fred Baron that went to support Hunter. Edwards “knew these rules well,” Higdon said, and should have known that the contributions violated campaign finance laws.

Edwards accepted $725,000 from Mellon and more than $200,000 from Baron, prosecutors said. The money was used to pay for Hunter’s living and medical expenses, travel and other costs to keep her out of sight while Edwards made his White House run, prosecutors say.

Defense attorneys argued the donations cannot be considered campaign contributions.

Prosecutors said Edwards manipulated Young and others to help keep his affair out of public view. Young testified that he allowed Hunter to move in with him and his wife at Edwards’ request after newspapers began looking into a possible affair within the Edwards campaign. Young initially claimed to be the father of Hunter’s baby girl and testified that Mellon was already funding Hunter’s living expenses when he called Baron to complain about the situation.

Baron offered to help out, telling Young to write up Hunter’s expenses so Baron could reimburse them, the aide testified.

Neither Baron nor Mellon appeared to know that the other was reimbursing Young for the same expenses, raising questions about whether and how much Young may have profited from the situation. Young acknowledged during the trial that he had used some donations for his own personal benefit, including paying for the construction of a home.

Another former Edwards aide, speechwriter Wendy Button, testified that Edwards knew Baron was supporting Hunter and her child in 2009. Defense lawyer Abbe Lowell urged jurors to focus on Young’s role in the case, saying he was a biased and unreliable witness with a financial and legal interest in the outcome.

“There is nothing he won’t lie about, nothing,” Lowell said.

Young, the author of a tell-all book about the Edwards scandal, testified under an agreement with the government in hopes that he will not be prosecuted. Prosecutors agreed that Young made several mistakes over the years, including keeping some of the money, failing to confront Edwards earlier about his behavior and falsely claiming paternity for Edwards’ child with Hunter.

But David Harbach of the U.S. Justice Department’s public integrity section told jurors in a rebuttal argument that Lowell was merely trying to distract jurors from focusing on the charges against Edwards.

“The defense is overplaying their hand,” Harbach said.

CNN’s Joe Johns and Adam Reiss contributed to this report.

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