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John Edwards case swings on two little words: 'the' or 'a'

The defense rested Wednesday without calling John Edwards or his daughter Cate to the stand. Analysts say not testifying carries risks. NBC's Lisa Myers reports from Greensboro, N.C.

Updated at 6:56 p.m. ET: John Edwards' fate could rest on what the word "the" means when his corruption trial enters its final phase Thursday morning. 

Stacey Klein and Michael Austin of NBC News and Ben Edwards of NBC station WCNC of Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report. Follow M. Alex Johnson on Twitter and Facebook.

Closing statements in the former Democratic presidential candidate's trial begin Thursday at 9:15 a.m. ET in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C. That's where Edwards — a former U.S. senator and the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee — is charged with six felony counts of accepting about $1 million in unreported campaign donations from two wealthy supporters at a time when federal election law limited individual political contributions to $2,300 per election cycle. 

Jury deliberations are expected to begin Friday.

The trial unexpectedly moved closer to a conclusion when Edwards' lawyers abruptly rested their case Wednesday morning without calling Edwards or his onetime mistress, Rielle Hunter.


After the jury was dismissed for the day, David Harbach, the chief prosecutor for the Justice Department, and Abbe Lowell, Edwards' lead attorney, haggled for more than two hours about the instructions U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles will read to the jury after closing statements. 

Perhaps the most contested issue centers on the language of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (.pdf), the statute Edwards is accused of having violated, which specifies that excess contributions are illegal if they are made "for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office."

The most important word is "the." Edwards' lawyers argue that it means the jury must find that Edwards conspired to accept illegal contributions solely to help his presidential election campaign. 

The government, by contrast, essentially argued that it can be read to mean "a purpose," contending that the contributions were illegal if Edwards used the money to influence the election along with other purposes, such as sparing his wife, the late Elizabeth Edwards, the humiliation of the affair.

Eagles indicated late Wednesday afternoon that she will instruct jurors that the government doesn't have to prove that the payments by billionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and the late Fred Baron were for the "sole benefit" of influencing primary elections in January 2008. 

But she said she would also tell them that a guilty verdict should be based on something more than just a side benefit to the Edwards campaign. Specifically, Eagles suggested that the jurors should be told that if they find that the real purpose of the payments was personal, the money cannot be considered an unlawful contribution.

Eagles could still change her mind about some issues before she files the final instructions Wednesday evening. They won't be made public until Eagles gives them to the jury after closing arguments, which are expected to stretch well into Thursday afternoon.

No Edwards or Hunter
It was a subdued ending to the defense phase of the trial, disappointing scores of people who had lined up  two hours before court opened, anticipating they might get an opportunity to hear from Edwards, Hunter and Edwards' daughter Cate Edwards Upham.

Legal analysts had predicted that Upham would certainly testify Wednesday and that Edwards was likely to.

But Lowell rested the defense case after Eagles denied another attempt to introduce evidence that Donald McGahn, a member of the Federal Election Commission, disagrees with the government's theory that the payments for Hunter constituted illegal campaign contributions.

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Lowell tried to introduce an audiotape of McGahn saying at a July 2011 FEC meeting that, even assuming everything the government claims is true, the payments were contributions that should have been reported.

The audio is available here from the FEC's website.

But Eagles said, "I don't think the opinions of others ... are particularly helpful to this jury" — essentially the same reasoning she gave last week in ruling out testimony from former FEC members who had been expected to say they also thought the contributions were legal.

The jury was left with the final testimony of Jim Walsh, a former FBI agent hired by the defense who traced the money trail.

Walsh testified Tuesday that Baron, finance director for his presidential campaign, gave Hunter monthly payments totaling $74,000 in the second half of 2008 — well after the campaign had ended and some of it even after Edwards publicly admitted the affair.

Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has faced public and private challenges throughout his life and career.

"The only logical reason for making these payments at the time they were made was exactly what John Edwards has been saying: 'I'm trying to protect my wife from finding out that I'm the father of Rielle Hunter's baby,'" said Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor.

Another major point of the defense argument is that Edwards didn't know what the money from Baron and Mellon was being used for, a contention that was supported Tuesday by John Moylan, who worked in both of Edwards' presidential campaigns.

Moylan testified that Edwards was shocked to learn in August 2008 — several months after the fact — that Mellon had been paying to help support Hunter and keep her from the public eye. The money was given through checks falsely labeled as furniture purchases through Andrew Young, who was once a top aide to Edwards and is now his chief accuser.

Referring to Young as "that damn Andrew," Edwards told Mellon, "Bunny, you should not be sending money to anyone," Moylan testified.

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