Chuck Burton, Associated Press
GREENSBORO, N.C. — A jury started weighing Friday morning whether John Edwards committed a crime when money from two wealthy donors was used to hide his pregnant mistress during the candidate's run for the 2008 White House.
Jurors heard about 17 days of testimony, a lot of focusing on the details of the lurid sex scandal between the Democratic candidate, his mistress Rielle Hunter and his once-trusted aide Andrew Young, who initially claimed he was the father of his boss' baby.
Edwards is charged with six criminal counts including conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting contributions that exceeded campaign finance limits, and causing his campaign to file a false financial disclosure report. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.
Jurors will not be judging Edwards character. Instead, they will have to weigh whether to believe Edwards, who argued that he didn't knowingly break the law, or his aide, Andrew Young, who said Edwards recruited him to solicit secret donations in excess of the legal limit for campaign contributions, then $2,300.
The choice before them comes down to choosing which liar to believe.
Young, the prosecution's star witness, falsely claimed paternity of his boss's baby in December 2007, after tabloid reporters tracked a visibly pregnant Hunter to a doctor's appointment.
Edwards repeatedly denied having a relationship with Hunter, only to go on national television in August 2008 to admit having a brief affair with Hunter but that it was physically impossible he was the father of her baby girl. In fact, his relationship with Hunter had lasted more than a year. A recording of that interview was played for the jury last week as the prosecution rested its case.
The bulk of the alleged illegal campaign contributions flowed to Young, including $725,000 in checks from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, who is now 101 years old. Young spent some of the money to care for Hunter, but financial records introduced at the trial showed the aide siphoned off most of the money to help build his family's $1.6 million dream home near Chapel Hill.
Another $400,000 in cash, luxury hotels, private jets rides and a $20,000-a-month rental mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif., were also provided by wealthy Texas lawyer Fred Baron to help cover up the affair. Baron served as Edwards' campaign finance chairman.
Prosecutors say Edwards knew about the money and directed the cover-up, showing the jury phone records indicating he was in constant contact with Hunter and Young while they were in hiding.
The defense countered that it is Young who should be on trial, not Edwards, accusing the aide of using Edwards' name without his knowledge to bamboozle Mellon out of hundreds of thousands of dollars for his personal use. Young received immunity from prosecutors.
During closing arguments Thursday, lead defense lawyer Abbe Lowell admitted that Edwards had lied to his wife and the American people. But his client didn't violate federal campaign finance regulations, Lowell said.
"This is a case that should define the difference between a wrong and a crime ... between a sin and a felony," Lowell told the jury. "John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those. But he has pleaded not guilty to violating the law."
Meanwhile, prosecutor Bobby Higdon used Edwards' old stump speech against him, saying the presidential candidate violated laws meant to protect "the two Americas" in an attempt to avoid a sex scandal.
"Campaign finance laws are designed to bring the two Americas together at election time," Higdon said. "John Edwards forgot his own rhetoric."
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mbieseck
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