John Edwards' defense team asked jurors to distinguish between a sin and a felony, attempting to pick apart the government's case against him. NBC's Lisa Myers reports from Greensboro, N.C.
Updated at 6:46 p.m. ET: John Edwards' fate is now in the hands of 12 anonymous jurors who will begin wading Friday through three weeks of at-times emotional, dramatic and intricate testimony about the former presidential candidate's affair with Rielle Hunter.
Edwards is charged in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., with six felony counts of accepting about $1 million in unreported campaign donations from two wealthy supporters at a time when election law limited individual donations to a candidate to $2,300.
Deliberations begin Friday morning after a day of closing arguments in which attorneys for both sides painted Edwards as a liar and a bad husband. Where they differed was over whether the scheme to hide his affair amounted to a crime.
"As many are his moral wrongs," none of Edwards' misdeeds was "a legal one," lead defense attorney Abbe Lowell said in his closing argument. Drawing a comparison with the chief prosecution witness, Lowell said: "John's conduct is shameful, but it's human. Andrew Young's lies on the stand and the government sponsoring those lies is worse."
Prosecutors alleged in their closing argument that Edwards manipulated the campaign finance system to hide his affair with Hunter, a videographer on his 2008 presidential campaign staff.
He "clearly knew the law and decided to violate it in order to salvage his campaign," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon said, accusing Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina, of cynically seeking to "hide Hunter and keep her quiet" until the 2008 presidential election was over "and his wife (had) passed away."
Elizabeth Edwards died of cancer in December 2010.
Higdon traced the cover-up to early 2006, 10 months before Edwards announced his presidential campaign in North Carolina in December 2006. Both Hunter and Elizabeth Edwards were in the audience that day, but the "seeds of destruction" were sewn earlier that year when John Edwards and his top aide, Andrew Young, hatched plans to make sure "the public would never find out" about the affair, he said.
Higdon said that for the next two years, Edwards manipulated Young — the prosecution's star witness — to extract money from billionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Fred Baron, the campaign's finance director, to keep Hunter out of sight as he ran for the White House.
He accused Edwards of having abandoned his own campaign rhetoric, which sought to bridge what he called "the two Americas" — the rich and the poor — saying Edwards "had no problem separating the two Americas when it served his purpose."
But Lowell contended that the government was seeking to criminalize misbehavior in a marriage, saying, "If what John Edwards did is a federal crime, we better build a lot more courthouses and jails."
The defense argues that Edwards didn't know what the contributions were intended for and that because they were used to conceal the affair with Hunter — not to pay for election expenses — they didn't constitute campaign contributions subject to regulation under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (.pdf).
What Edwards was "consciously trying to avoid was not the law, but his wife, whom he had damaged and damaged and damaged," Lowell said.
Lowell attacked Young as an embittered ex-admirer of Edwards out to make a quick buck by peddling a book about the affair. Young also pocketed most of the money the government claims was given to hide Hunter, he said, using some of it to build a $1.6 million home for himself and his family.
Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has faced public and private challenges throughout his life and career.
"You'd run out of paper in your notebooks" writing down all the times Young lied, Lowell said.
In the government's rebuttal late Thursday afternoon, the chief prosecutor, David Harbach II of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, essentially threw Young under the bus, saying his testimony had to be true because "he's not very smart" and couldn't have dreamed up the story on his own.
"This guy is a criminal mastermind? Andrew Young? That's nonsense," Harbach said.
Acknowledging that Young had lied in the past and had kept much of the money for himself, Harbach asked, "If Andrew Young could say anything to help the government's case, don't you think he could have done a better job?"
'The' vs. 'a'
The heart of the precedent-setting case is a phrase in the 1971 election law means more than it says on its face.
The law declares that 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 say it means just that — that the jury must find that Edwards conspired to accept illegal contributions solely to help his presidential election campaign.
The government, by contrast, argues that it can be read to mean "a purpose," contending that the contributions were illegal if Edwards used the money not just to influence the election but also for other purposes, such as sparing his wife the humiliation of the affair.
"No jury has ever been asked to do this before — assess money to cover up an affair to see whether it's a campaign violation," said Hampton Dellinger, a legal analyst for NBC News and msnbc.com. "So we're in uncharted territory."
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