published Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Closing arguments to begin in John Edwards case

John Edwards arrives at a federal courthouse for his trial on charges of campaign corruption in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday, May 16, 2012. Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations over nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors used to help hide the Democrat's pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
John Edwards arrives at a federal courthouse for his trial on charges of campaign corruption in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday, May 16, 2012. Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations over nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors used to help hide the Democrat's pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MICHAEL BIESECKER

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — With only two hours allotted to each side to make closing arguments Thursday, prosecutors and defense lawyers neared the end of a month-long trial into whether former presidential candidate John Edwards violated campaign finance laws.

Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations stemming from nearly $1 million secretly provided by two wealthy donors that helped hide his pregnant mistress during the 2008 Democratic primary. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.

Prosecutors likely will argue the payments were intended to influence the outcome of an election by keeping Edwards' political hopes viable. Defense lawyers will counter that Edwards had limited knowledge of the cover-up and that the payments were gifts intended to keep his cancer-stricken wife from leaning about the out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles set the two-hour limit for closing arguments. The jury is expected to begin deliberating Friday.

On Wednesday, Edwards' team wrapped up their defense without calling him, his mistress or daughter to testify, a move experts said was intended to shift focus from a political sex scandal to the nitty-gritty of campaign finance law.

"The defense wasn't sexy, but the defense doesn't want sexy. It wants an acquittal," said Steve Friedland, a professor at Elon University School of Law and former federal prosecutor who has attended much of the trial.

Experts said Edwards' bare-bone defense, which lasted just over two days, may be enough to avoid conviction on charges he authorized more than $1 million secretly provided by two wealthy donors to help hide an affair with pregnant mistress Rielle Hunter as he sought the White House in 2008.

The prosecution presented nearly three weeks of evidence and testimony from a former Edwards aide and campaign advisors that painted Edwards as a frequent liar, but showed no direct evidence he intended to break federal campaign finance laws, the experts said.

Many observers believed Edwards would testify so the jury could hear directly from the former U.S. senator and trial lawyer, who had a reputation for his ability to sway jurors. But putting Edwards and Hunter on the stand would have exposed the defense to withering cross-examination about Edwards' past lies and personal failings.

"The defense may very well have felt that their case was solid enough to go to the jury without the risk of the personal testimony of these witnesses, which would undoubtedly resurrect the salacious details of the affair for the jury," said Catherine Dunham, another Elon law professor who has been attending the trial.

The defense also elected not to call Edwards' oldest daughter, Cate, a 30-year-old lawyer who has sat behind her father nearly every day, as a character witness to help humanize him.

At one point during the trial, Cate Edwards ran out of the courtroom in tears during testimony about her cancer-stricken mother, Elizabeth, confronting her father about his extramarital affair.

The former Democratic presidential candidate has sat quietly at the defense table throughout his trial, whispering with his lawyers and rarely showing reaction to the often emotional testimony from witnesses who were once among his strongest supporters and closest friends.

He has made no public statements since October, following a pre-trial hearing where a judge refused to throw out the case.

At the trial, prosecutors have shown two members of Edwards' inner circle, campaign finance chairman Fred Baron and once-close aide Andrew Young, engaged in a yearlong cover-up to hide the married presidential candidate's mistress from the media.

The married Young falsely claimed paternity of his boss' baby and received $725,000 in secret checks from an elderly heiress, using some of the money to care for Hunter.

Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer, provided Young and Hunter with more than $400,000 in cash, luxury hotels, private jets and a $20,000-a-month rental mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Prosecutors have introduced phone records, voicemails and other evidence showing Edwards in frequent contact with Baron, Young and Hunter while Hunter was in hiding.

Former members of Edwards' campaign also testified that Baron spoke of "moving Hunter around" in the candidate's presence and that Edwards told his speechwriter he knew "all along" what Baron was up to.

But in 14 days of testimony, no witness ever said Edwards knew he was violating campaign finance laws, a key element of criminal intent the government must prove to win a conviction.

"There was no direct evidence that John Edwards knew he was violating campaign contribution laws," Friedland said. "Juries like smoking guns. There were no smoking guns here."

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