GREENSBORO, N.C. — Former presidential candidate John Edwards was found not guilty Thursday on one charge that he accepted illegal campaign contributions, and a federal judge declared a mistrial on five other charges when a jury deadlocked after nine days of deliberations.
A look of relief spread over Edwards' face as he learned that his year-long fight against government prosecutors appeared to be over, and he hugged his lawyers, his daughter Cate and his parents, who sat behind him in the courtroom for most of the trial.
"Thank goodness we live in a country that has the kind of system we have," Edwards said outside the courthouse before heading home.
Federal prosecutors will have to decide whether to retry Edwards on the five charges, but legal experts said it would be unlikely.
"They got almost every evidentiary ruling in this case in their favor, (and) the jury instructions (were) in their favor. They couldn't try a better case, and having said all that, this jury was just very divided," said Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor who attended most of Edwards' trial. "It just makes very little sense, in my opinion, to try it a second time."
Shanahan noted that some key witnesses will never testify because they're either dead or too frail to appear, and other witnesses aren't credible enough to get a conviction. Also, he said, the evidence is too shaky when dealing with complex campaign finance laws, he said.
"It seems like the government's prosecution was pressing the outer edge of campaign finance law," he said.
Jurors declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
The eight-man, four-woman jury deliberated for about 50 hours since May 18, and they told U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles that they had "exhausted every aspect" by late Thursday and couldn't come to an agreement.
Earlier in the afternoon, they sent a note indicating that they had "reached a decision" on all six charges.
When jurors were brought into the courtroom, however, the jury foreman stammered when Eagles asked if they had a unanimous verdict. He said they had one verdict, and the judge stopped him from commenting further.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell immediately asked that Eagles declare a mistrial on the five other charges since jurors were obviously deadlocked. Prosecutors opposed the motion, saying the jury needed to spend more time considering the case before giving up.
Eagles said she didn't want the jurors to feel like prisoners, but she asked them to continue deliberating on the remaining charges.
"It is your duty to agree on a unanimous verdict if you can do so without surrendering (your) conviction," she said. "It is possible you have already done what I am asking you to do."
Jury agrees on one charge
The charge that the jury was able to agree on alleged that Edwards accepted illegal campaign contributions from Virginia heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon in 2008. The charge involved two checks that Mellon routed through a friend to one-time Edwards aide Andrew Young that weren't cashed until after Edwards had dropped out of the 2008 presidential campaign.
The remaining charges involve alleged illegal contributions from Mellon in 2007 and from Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron in 2007 and 2008, filing false campaign finance reports and engaging in a criminal conspiracy.
The government alleged that Edwards, a former U.S. senator, masterminded a scheme to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from Mellon and Baron, his late campaign finance chairman, to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House.
Defense attorneys argued Edwards had little direct knowledge of the cover-up, which they say was directed by Baron and Young.
Young was the star prosecution witness, and he spent nearly five days on the witness stand – about one-third of the three weeks the government spent to present its case – outlining a sordid tale of politics, sex and money.
But Lowell painted Young as an experienced liar, noting inconsistencies between his testimony and what he had written in his tell-all book about Edwards' affair and failed campaign and said in previous interviews. He also pointed out that Young and his wife spent most of the money on an upscale home they were building near Chapel Hill and other personal expenses.
Young's wife and Mellon's friend, Charlotte interior decorator Bryan Huffman, described the scheme in which checks were funneled from Mellon through Huffman to the Youngs to pay for Hunter's expenses.
A string of former campaign staffers related to jurors stories about Edwards' relationships with Hunter and his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and his efforts to cultivate Mellon as a donor. Defense attorneys suggested that some staffers were only interested in bringing Edwards down so they could write books about the case.
The defense maintained that any cover-up was aimed at keeping Elizabeth Edwards from knowing that the affair had continued long after John Edwards had told his wife it had ended and after Hunter had stopped working for his campaign. They argued that Mellon and Baron were merely trying to help a friend and would have provided him with money even if he weren't running for president.
Lowell and defense attorneys Allison van Laningham and Alan Duncan focused their three-day defense on the intricacies of federal campaign finance law, offering Edwards' former campaign financial officer and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who said money from outsiders used to hide a candidate's affair aren't considered campaign contributions.
Edwards didn't testify in his defense, and neither prosecutors nor the defense called Hunter as a witness.
Edwards speaks publicly
After the mistrial was declared, Edwards made his first public statement since a grand jury indictment was announced last June 3.
"While I do not think I did anything illegal or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong," he said. "There is no one else responsible for my sins – none of the people who came to court to testify are responsible, nobody working for the government is responsible. I am responsible."
Edwards also thanked the jurors for their service and thanked his parents, Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, for driving to Greensboro from their home in Robbins every day to support him. He also thanked his eldest daughter, Cate Edwards Upham, for her daily support as well and said he looked forward to spending time with his two other children with his late wife, Emma Claire and Jack.
He choked up when he mentioned the daughter he has with Hunter, proclaiming that he loves "my precious Quinn" more than anyone could imagine and that he was grateful for her.
Edwards concluded by saying he hopes to once again work on the anti-poverty efforts that were the cornerstone of his two campaigns for president.
"I don't think God's through with me. I really believe He thinks there's still some good things I can do," he said. "I want to dedicate my life to being the best dad I can be and to helping those kids who I think deserve help and whom I hope I can help."