May 31, 2012 / 3:14 PM / 8 years ago

Ex-Senator Edwards acquitted on campaign finance charge

GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former U.S. Senator John Edwards was acquitted on Thursday on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions, and the judge declared a mistrial on five other counts because the jury was deadlocked.

The jury’s decision came on the ninth day of deliberations and marked yet another dramatic turn of events for the one-time politician who rose to become the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2004, only to see his career ruined by scandal four years later.

As the jury’s verdict was read, Edwards, who did not testify in the nearly six-week-long trial, slumped back in his seat in relief.

Later, standing in front of the federal courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, the state he represented in the U.S. Senate from 1999 to 2005, Edwards said he never broke the law.

“While I do not believe I did anything illegal, or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong, and there is no one else responsible for my sins,” he said, flanked by his parents and oldest daughter, Cate.

“I am responsible, and if I want to find the person who should be held accountable for my sins, honestly I don’t have to go any further than the mirror. It’s me. It is me and me alone.”

Federal prosecutors did not make clear whether they would seek another trial for Edwards, who they accuse of taking funds from two wealthy donors during his 2008 presidential campaign to keep voters from learning he was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, who died in 2010.

Jurors found Edwards not guilty of accepting illegal campaign contributions from one of those supporters, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, in 2008.

But they were deadlocked on a similar count of receiving illegal campaign money from Mellon in 2007; two counts of accepting illegal campaign money from friend and supporter Fred Baron; one count of conspiring to solicit illegal campaign funds; and one count of failing to report the donor payments as campaign contributions.

The defense said all along that the supporters’ money was meant as a personal gift to shield Elizabeth Edwards from her husband’s indiscretions, not to influence the election.

Former U.S. Senator John Edwards (2nd L) makes a statement with his daughter, Cate Edwards (L), father Wallace Edwards, and mother Bobbie Edwards (R) after the jury reached a verdict at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina May 31, 2012. Jurors acquitted former U.S. Senator John Edwards on one count of taking illegal campaign contributions on Thursday and the judge declared a mistrial on five other counts because the jury was deadlocked. REUTERS/John Adkisson

Asked on Thursday how he felt following the acquittal and mistrial, Wallace Edwards, the former senator’s father, pointed at the smile on his face. “This says it all,” he said.

The Justice Department will likely weigh the political risk and expense as they decide whether to retry the case, said Elon University assistant law professor Michael Rich.

“I’m sure that they will spin it that a hung jury simply indicates that they had a strong case but couldn’t convince a couple of reticent jurors,” Rich said. “I do think we saw their strongest case, and it just wasn’t enough.”

Earlier in the day, the jury announced it had reached a verdict on a single charge and could not reach a unanimous decision on the other counts. U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles sent the jurors back for more deliberations, but they soon came back and said they were deadlocked, prompting Eagles to declare the mistrial on five counts.

The panel was considering whether Edwards, 58, violated election laws as he sought to cover up his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter and her pregnancy with his child during the 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The child, Quinn, is now 4 and lives with Hunter in Charlotte.

The two-time presidential hopeful who served as the Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee faced possible prison time and fines if found guilty of any of the six felony counts.

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The charges included conspiring to solicit the money, receiving more than the $2,300 allowed from any one donor, and failing to report the payments as contributions.

Hampton Dellinger, a North Carolina lawyer who attended the trial, said Edwards’ gutsy decisions to turn down a reported plea offer and skip taking the stand had paid off.

“There’s no question he drove the defense strategy,” Dellinger said. “He made tough call after tough call, and it worked out for him.”

Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst and Dan Trotta; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Anthony Boadle

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