State News

Judge refuses to dismiss Edwards case

Posted May 11, 2012 3:55 a.m. EDT
Updated May 12, 2012 8:35 a.m. EDT

— A federal judge on Friday rejected a defense motion to dismiss the case against John Edwards, ruling that jurors should decide whether the two-time presidential candidate broke campaign finance laws.

Defense lawyer Abbe Lowell argued that the government failed to prove that Edwards committed any crime.

"They had every opportunity to come up with the goods," Lowell told U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles. "They have holes. They cannot fill the holes because their novel theory has holes. They are asking you to be a pothole-filler."

Eagles' decision means that any defense in the case will begin Monday.

Edwards is accused of masterminding a scheme to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy donors to help hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all six counts.

To prove guilt, prosecutors must show that Edwards not only knew about the money used in the cover-up orchestrated by two members of his campaign, which he denies, but also that the former trial lawyer knew he was violating the law.

Lowell also argued that the government's star witness, former Edwards aide Andrew Young, wasn't credible and that some checks couldn't be considered campaign contributions because they weren't cashed until after Edwards dropped out of the race. He also said there were jurisdictional problems with some of the charges because events didn't occur in the Middle District of North Carolina, where the case is being tried.

"There is not one ounce of evidence that would support (the belief that) Mr. Edwards took any action to intentionally break the law," Lowell said.

Prosecutors maintained that Young testified that Edwards wanted to be kept in the dark about details of the alleged scheme so that he wouldn't have to lie under oath later if he were appointed to a top government post. That, prosecutors said, suggests that he knew he was breaking the law.

"This is an experienced politician. He didn't just drop out of the sky in '07," said David Harbach, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice who is prosecuting the case.

"What is charged here is a trick scheme or device to conceal. It's an omission case," Harbach said.

Edwards acted more like co-counsel than defendant during Friday's hearing. He took copious notes, conferred with his defense team and was overheard making comments like "that's not right" as he listened to prosecutors.

The government rested its case Thursday by playing a tape of a 2008 national television interview in which Edwards repeatedly lied about his extramarital affair and denied fathering her baby. Earlier testimony from a parade of former aides and advisers also showed an unappealing side of Edwards, casting him as a liar and lousy husband.

"It is rare the jury gets to see the defendant talking about the main issues of a case in a televised videotape, especially with the defendant watching himself talking about the issues in the videotape," said Steven Friedland, a former prosecutor and professor as Elon University School of Law. "The defense must somehow counteract that lasting impression."

It's unclear whether Edwards will testify in his defense.

Before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1998, Edwards made a fortune as a personal injury lawyer renowned for his ability to sway jurors. However, in doing so Edwards would also expose himself to what would likely be a withering cross-examination about his many past lies and personal failings.

"He is going to have to admit repeatedly that he lied and that he lied and that he lied,” said Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor who has attended much of the trial.

"I believe, based on my experience representing both former lawyers and politicians, that he will take the stand,” Shanahan said. "But I’m sure he’ll only do so after he has long heart-to-heart conversations with his lawyers.”

The defense could also call Hunter to the stand, which prosecutors declined to do. She could potentially echo Edwards' position that he didn't have direct knowledge of the secret effort to care for her and keep her out of the public eye.

Friedland said he'd be surprised to see the mistress take the stand.

"She will simply call more attention to the lies surrounding her affair and pregnancy," he said.

Shanahan agreed, saying Edwards' defense is better served by focusing on the campaign finance laws he supposedly violated.

"Unless she has something that is highly probative to showing what John Edwards was thinking and doing, then I think they will probably not call her as a witness,” he said. ”Frankly, the law should favor John Edwards, so if they can get the jury’s attention back on that, it will be better for the defense.”