TOPICS > Politics

As Defense Rests, What’s at Stake for John Edwards?

May 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Despite a nearly three-week run by the prosecution, John Edwards' defense attorneys rested after two days without calling the former vice presidential nominee, his mistress or daughter to the stand regarding the campaign finance charges he faces. Judy Woodruff and the AP's Michael Biesecker discuss the case's next steps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to the courtroom drama involving the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, John Edwards.

Edwards faces charges he violated campaign finance laws by securing funds for his mistress, Rielle Hunter. After nearly a three-week run by the prosecution, the defense has rested after just two days without calling Edwards or Hunter to testify. Closing arguments are tomorrow.

Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press has been inside the courtroom, and he joins us now from Greensboro, N.C.

Thank you for being with us.

And before I ask you about what happened today, Michael Biesecker, give us a sense of what the prosecution laid out over the time that it was in charge.

MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press: Well, the prosecution presented 14 days of testimony from very close friends of Edwards and former aides that presented him largely as a liar, a liar who lied about his affair, who lied about fathering a baby with his mistress, and who lied about his knowledge of the money and covering it up.

They rested their case with an ABC interview from 2008 where he repeated all those lies, and they played it for the jury. So, the defense had to try to mitigate that damage in presenting its case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did the defense do that? And, again, what — just over two days, what did the defense say?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, since they didn’t put Edwards on the stand, they had to attack the credibility of those who had questioned his.

They attacked the aide Andrew Young, the person who initially claimed paternity of the baby and who took $725,000 from a wealthy heiress, Bunny Mellon, that some of which was spent to cover up the affair. But the defense used the Youngs’ own financial statements to show much of the money they received, almost $1 million in total between two donors, was funneled to build their $1.6 million dream home in Chapel Hill. It didn’t go to the cover-up of the affair, at least the majority of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a sense, an understanding of why the defense decided not to call John Edwards, a celebrated trial lawyer throughout most of his career, or Rielle Hunter, the mistress?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, on Edwards, obviously, he made his living before he entered politics swaying jurors, and after he entered politics swaying voters.

But he took a — he would have stood a withering cross-examination about his past lives, about his sex life, about the baby he fathered and denied for two years. And I think they — when they did the risk analysis, they felt that the prosecution’s case was weak enough that they didn’t have to expose Edwards to the risk of what he might be forced to say on cross-examination.

For Hunter, if they put — if the defense put her on the stand, that just would potentially remind jurors of the affair and the sordid tabloid nature of this whole scandal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the core of this, Michael Biesecker, the notion that a campaign finance law may have been violated here? The core of that argument, either side — is there some sort of consensus that either side has the — made the better case on that?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, certainly, the defense contends that Edwards had very little knowledge of the cover-up and the money used in it.

But the defense has hammered that this was money that flowed from a third party, the wealthy donors, to another third party, the aide Young and the mistress, Rielle Hunter. Edwards never touched the money. It never went through his campaign account. And, therefore, they argued that these were personal expenditures between two individuals that didn’t have anything to do with the candidate or his campaign, essentially a gift.

The prosecution counters that it was clearly a campaign finance violation because the money was intended to influence the outcome of an election, i.e., hiding the mistress from the public and keeping Edwards’ campaign viable as he went through the early primaries in 2008.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us, Michael Biesecker, what has it been like covering this trial? It has gotten so much attention because of the sensational details. Watching — we have seen pictures of John Edwards coming and going with his parents, with his daughter. Tell us about that side of this trial.

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, for those of us from North Carolina, we watched John Edwards’ meteoric rise from a local trial attorney to senator to vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.

And as rapid as that rise was, his life fell apart even faster. And all the sordid details, some of which were previously unknown, about that fall have tumbled out into the courtroom. You know, it’s — it’s Shakespearian in its dramatic nature. And certainly there have been moments in the testimony, especially the testimony about his deceased wife, Elizabeth Edwards, and an argument they had at an airport in Raleigh where she ripped over her blouse when she challenged him about the affair, some of the testimony was so emotional, it sent his daughter, Cate Edwards, who has been sitting in the front row of the courtroom for most of the trial, fleeing in tears.

The defense has tried to refocus from all that emotion, all that sex, all that scandal back to the central technical legal issue of were these campaign finance violations and take the emotion out of it. And they had some success in trying to do that in the last two days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, closing arguments tomorrow.

Michael Biesecker, we will be watching. Thank you.