John Edwards Trial: Tawdry Testimony, But Was There a Crime?

Salacious details aside, the prosecution may not have proved its case

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Chris Keane / Reuters

Former U.S. Senator John Edwards leaves the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., on April 24, 2012

The cringe-inducing low point of the John Edwards trial so far was when a campaign aide testified about an airport encounter between Edwards and his breast-cancer-stricken wife. Reacting to a National Enquirer report that he was having an affair, Elizabeth Edwards “collapsed in a ball” in a parking lot then got up, tore off her shirt and bra, and told her husband: “You don’t see me any more.”

That was only one of a long parade of distressing and seemingly gratuitous details in the prosecution’s case. Another aide testified that Edwards called Rielle Hunter, the mistress who was then pregnant with his child, a “crazy slut” and insisted there was just a 1-in-3 chance the baby was his. And a campaign adviser testified that while Edwards was juggling his wife, his mistress, and apparently the logistics of paying his mistress’s bills, he was coolly discussing his hopes of being appointed to the Supreme Court. And it was all admissible.

How exactly did the august Greensboro, N.C., federal courthouse get turned into a stage for so much tawdry testimony? And more important, were any actual crimes committed?

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There’s a straightforward answer to the question about talking trash. The rules of evidence are fairly permissive about what kind of testimony can be given at trial. As long as the evidence is more likely to shed light on the relevant issues than it is to prejudice the proceedings, it generally gets admitted. And most of the salacious details of this case are integral to telling the prosecutors’ story about why Edwards would be so motivated to engage in a cover-up.

The answer to the question about whether Edwards is actually guilty of the charges against him — that Edwards violated federal campaign-finance law by using nearly $1 million in campaign funds to help hide his pregnant mistress while he was running for President — is less clear-cut. There was evidence that Edwards’ campaign-finance chairman, Fred Baron, and a high-ranking aide, Andrew Young, participated in a yearlong effort to hide Edwards’ extramarital affair from the news media. That effort included Young, a married father of three, falsely claiming that Hunter’s child was his. Young’s wife Cheri testified that she reluctantly joined the cause and helped hide Hunter from the media.

There was also plenty of evidence of money sloshing around. That included the $725,000 given by Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the 101-year-old widow of banking heir Paul Mellon. Some of this so-called “Bunny money,” prosecutors say, was used to pay Hunter’s bills and buy her things like furniture and a BMW. Baron reportedly picked up the tab when the Youngs and a pregnant Hunter hit the road — traveling to Florida; Aspen, Colo.; and San Diego — to avoid the prying eyes of the press.

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And there was evidence of lying. Edwards long insisted, including in a 2008 Nightline interview, that he did not know anything about payments to Hunter. But at trial, voice-mail messages, phone records and witness testimony suggested that Edwards was keeping in close touch with what Young and Baron were up to.

It has certainly been great grist for the tabloids, but extramarital affairs, cover-ups, clandestine payoffs and lying are not necessarily criminal. The heart of the case against Edwards is the charge that he used campaign funds to cover up his affair. The trouble is, prosecutors did not directly show that Edwards thought the money that went to Hunter was from campaign contributions — subject to legal limits and reporting requirements — rather than just gifts from generous friends. The defense is expected to call former Federal Election Commission members to testify that all of that sloshing money did not actually violate campaign-finance law.

If Edwards is found guilty, he faces up to 30 years in prison. The case could come down to how the jury reads the fine points of law — or not. In some ways, this case has always been about the human drama. And in the end, a lot may turn on how the jurors view the perplexing man at the center of the proceedings: as a Machiavellian schemer willing to run roughshod over anyone and anything to get what he wanted, or as a deeply flawed and troubled man who has suffered enough.

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