TOPICS > Politics

John Edwards ‘Seemed Buoyant’ After a Not Guilty, Deadlock on 5 Counts

May 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was acquitted Thursday on a count of accepting illegal campaign contributions to hide his mistress. A federal jury in North Carolina deadlocked on five other counts, and the judge declared a mistrial on those. Ray Suarez talks to the AP's Michael Biesecker about the case.

RAY SUAREZ: The announcement came this afternoon in Greensboro, North Carolina. Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was acquitted in federal court on one of the six counts against him. The others ended in a mistrial. 

Edwards had waited for nine days before the jury delivered the only verdict it could agree on: not guilty on a single count of accepting illegal campaign contributions. 

He spoke later, outside the federal courthouse. 

JOHN EDWARDS (D), Former U.S. Senator: All I can say is thank goodness we live in a country that has the kind of system that we have. 

I want to make sure everyone hears from me and from my voice that, 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 on else who responsible for my sins. 

RAY SUAREZ: Edwards was charged with violating campaign finance laws by having wealthy donors give nearly $1 million to hide his pregnant mistress. 

The scandal erupted when The National Enquirer tabloid newspaper uncovered his affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer hired to document his bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The former senator and vice presidential nominee repeatedly denied having an affair or that he’d fathered a daughter by Hunter. But, ultimately, he admitted to both. 

This all played out as Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, was fighting a recurrence of breast cancer. They ultimately separated after 33 years of marriage. Elizabeth Edwards died in December of 2010. 

To help us understand the lone verdict, the judge’s order, and what is next, we go to Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press, who has been reporting from the courtroom in Greensboro since the trial began. We talked a short time ago. 

Michael Biesecker, welcome. 

The jury had six counts to decide. What did they finally end up entering a judgment on? 

MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press: Well, they were only able to reach a unanimous decision on count three, which was considered the weakest of the counts against Edwards, that he provided illegal campaign contributions to Bunny Mellon in 2008. They found him not guilty on that count, deadlocked on the remaining five. 

RAY SUAREZ: In the final stages of any trial, there’s usually a procedure, a way this all predictably rolls out. But it sounds like it didn’t happen this afternoon. How did you find out there was at least one verdict? 

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, there seemed to be a bit of miscommunication between the jury and the judge. They sent her a note saying that they had made a decision on all six counts. She interpreted that to mean that they had reached a verdict on all six. 

But when she them got into the courtroom, they made clear that they had only reached a unanimous decision, only had a verdict on that one count, count three, and that they had been unable to reach a verdict on the other — on the other five counts. 

RAY SUAREZ: Now, when a jury tells a judge it’s deadlocked, she often gives special instructions. She or he may be trying to save the entire trial process. 

Did the judge give those instructions in this case, send them back to try to finish their work? 

MICHAEL BIESECKER: She absolutely did. 

She read them what’s called an Allen charge. The Allen charge is sort of a set of phrases that the judge will read to a jury in this very situation where they say they’re deadlocked. Basically, she told them that no other 12 jurors could hear the evidence and probably render a better decision than they could. And she asked them to go back and try again. 

However, she did tell them that they shouldn’t change their firmly held opinions while listening if they were in the minority to what the majority had to say and vice versa. But the jury was only out for about 35 minutes before they send her another note indicating that they did believe that extra time would make no difference, that they were irrevocably deadlocked on those remaining five charges.

RAY SUAREZ: So not guilty on one count, deadlocked on the five others. Is this a win for John Edwards, or does he still remain vulnerable to federal prosecution? 

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, they could still retry him on those five counts, as they did on Rod Blagojevich in Illinois. Second time around in the Blagojevich case, the government was able to find guilty verdicts against Blagojevich. 

However, legal experts I talked to this afternoon said they would be surprised if the government tried to retry John Edwards. They had their best shot with their best witnesses and best evidence. The judge ruled in their — the prosecution’s favor on most of the major evidentiary issues in the case, and at the end of the day, the jury didn’t come back with the verdict that the government wanted. 

Experts I talked to say there’s no indication they could do better the second time around. 

RAY SUAREZ: Did the government have a very heavy burden in this case, because none had ever been tried like it before under these statutes?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, that’s right. 

Either way, this case was going to set some precedents about what campaign finance laws — how they’re interpreted when they’re applied to payments that went from a third party to another third party. In this case, the money never went through Edwards’ campaign account. It did come from his established political donors.

However, he claimed not to know about the money as it was given and not to have been part of the cover-up, beyond knowledge that his mistress, his pregnant mistress, was in California with an aide. But he didn’t know the details of how the money was being spent or what it was being spent for or how much. 

It appears that at least most of the jury or part of the jury believed him on that count and couldn’t find him guilty on those charges. 

RAY SUAREZ: Were any of the jurors available to talk to reporters after the verdicts were entered? 

MICHAEL BIESECKER: The jurors were escorted to their cars out of the back of the courthouse by U.S. Marshals. None of them answered requests for comment. 

RAY SUAREZ: John Edwards himself did emerge. Did he have to walk a fine line, or was he able to almost pronounce himself basically vindicated by the process? 

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, it’s obvious from his reaction he felt a sense of vindication with the jury’s decision on the one count, the not guilty count, as well as the fact that they didn’t find him guilty on the others. 

Edwards was clearly relieved, clearly happy in the courtroom, smiling at his daughter, Cate, on the first row and hugging her, hugging his parents, hugging his lawyers. He clearly believes that he had a win here. The concern is that the government will retry him on those five counts. 

But when he came out, he seemed buoyant. He thanked the jury for their service. He thanked his family for standing by him, especially his children, recognizing Cate standing next to him, talking about his two other school-aged children, and especially thanking and expressing his love for his daughter with his mistress, Rielle Hunter, Frances Quinn Hunter, who’s 4 years old. 

RAY SUAREZ: Does a clock start running now, Michael? Does the federal government have to decide what it’s going to do within a certain time in order to match up with speedy trial law and not put Edwards in continued jeopardy? 

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, they talked some about scheduling. 

It sounds like they will have to decide by September. Judge Eagles, Catherine C. Eagles, who oversaw the case, will hold a hearing on a potential retrial. Certainly, the government will probably have to decide whether to refile the charges by then. 

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press joining us from Greensboro, North Carolina — Michael, thanks for joining us.