After a final afternoon of highly unusual procedural hiccups and surprises, the widely watched prosecution of former presidential hopeful John Edwards ended in a mistrial last night with the exception of one charge on which he was found not guilty by the jury.
For now, at least, Mr Edwards, 58, who has in any event fallen from public grace at a velocity rarely seen in American politics, has eluded both heavy fines and prison time that could have extended to 30 years.
The outcome represents a sharp setback for prosecutors who had tried to prove that private donations of nearly $1m from wealthy patrons to help him cover up an affair with a campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, with whom he had an out-of-wedlock baby, amounted to illegal contributions.
It was around noon at the Greensboro, North Carolina, courthouse yesterday when the jury of 12 indicated that it wanted to work through lunch, suggesting it was nearing conclusions. In the afternoon the jury then signaled to the judge it had a verdict. But then to the shock of everyone, including Judge Catherine Eagles, the foreman revealed in the courtroom that they had a unanimous verdict on only one count.
Judge Eagles sent the jury back into the deliberation room. Within two hours, however, she had declared a mistrial on the other five counts.
Mr Edwards thanked the jury and on the steps of the court, accompanied by his daughter Cate and his parents, he publically accepted his behaviour had been questionable but repeated his belief he had done nothing illegal.
"This is about me. I want to make sure that everyone hears from me and from my voice that while I do not believe I did anything illegal or ever thought I was dong anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong and there is no one else responsible for my sins. Not one of the people who came to the court and testified is responsible... I am responsible," he said. "It is me and me alone."
The tabloid narrative of Mr Edwards has all been about the affair with Ms Hunter and the steps he – and his friends and advisers – took, to conceal it and the birth of the child both from the public and also from his then-wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who was suffering from cancer. She died in December 2010. For the prosecution, however, it was about the money he received and how it was used.
The scandal blew up just as the ex-Senator was ramping up his campaign in 2007 and 2008 to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Over months, Mr Edwards received $725,000 from a banking heiress Rachel Bunny Mellon, who is now 101 years old, and another $200,000 from Fred Baron, who served as his finance chair. It was the prosecution's contention that those donations were given primarily to hide Ms Hunter and the child and thus protect the campaign from implosion and should be considered campaign contributions.
For the jury it was apparently clear that money received from Ms Mellon in 2008, was a private matter and did not constitute a violation; thus the single acquittal.
But on the other five charges, which included conspiracy, receiving illegal funds and failing to report campaign donations, they deadlocked.
The government had the option to seek a retrial on the five counts the jury deadlocked on but most experts considered that unlikely last night.
In the 2008 presidential cycle there was a $2,300 limit on campaign contributions. However changes in the campaign laws since then might make the Edwards prosecution look almost archaic.
Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last year, private groups known as super-PACs are now allowed to raise as much money as they like from private sources to influence elections.
Timeline: The events that ruined Edwards
2006 Edwards meets Rielle Hunter, his campaign filmmaker.
Dec 2006 He announces that he will run for president in 2008.
Oct 2007 National Enquirer reports Edwards had an affair with a former campaign staffer; Edwards denies it.
Feb 2008 His lovechild, Frances Hunter, is born.
Aug 2008 Admits to affair.
Jan 2010 Admits fathering Frances.
Jun 2011 Is indicted on six counts relating to the misuse of campaign funds to hide the affair.
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