John Edwards was a bad husband who cheated on his wife while she died of cancer, but he never broke the law, his lawyer said in closing arguments today.
The prosecution said Edwards was more than a bad husband. The former presidential candidate was the chief architect of a criminal scheme to illegally use campaign contributions to cover up the love affair.
Edwards, 58, is on trial for allegedly using nearly $1 million in donations from wealthy donors Fred Baron and Rachel "Bunny" Mellon to keep secret his affair with mistress Rielle Hunter in order to protect his 2008 presidential ambitions and later his hopes of winning a spot as vice president or attorney general.
The jury is being asked to decide whether the money was political donations used to dupe the government or gifts from friends who helped Edwards fool his wife, Elizabeth, who was dying of cancer. If convicted, Edwards could be sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison.
"This is a case which should define the difference between someone committing a wrong and someone committing a crime," said Edwards' attorney Abbe Lowell.
"John was a bad husband, but there is not the remotest chance that John did or intended to violate the law," Lowell said.
"If what John did was a crime, we'd better build a lot more court rooms, hire a lot more prosecutors and build a lot more jails," he said.
Lowell put much of the blame for soliciting and spending the money on former aide Andrew Young and his wife Cheri Young, a couple that he said "could shame Bonnie and Clyde." The Youngs, he said, used Edwards' scandal to enrich themselves.
"John's conduct was shameful, but it was human… Andrew Young's lies on the stand and the government sponsoring those lies is worse," Lowell said.
"Andrew Young will make up anything he wants… and the government will build its case on it," he said.
John Edwards remained unemotional during closing arguments, much the way he has throughout the trial, keeping his chin pressed against his crossed hands, and only occasionally looking at the jury.
Prosecutor Robert Higdon tried to convince the jury that Edwards was an archly ambitious politician fixated on obtaining a higher office.
"He would deny, deceive and manipulate," Higdon told the jury. "The whole scheme was cooked up to support John Edwards' political ambitions."
The prosecutor recalled the testimony of Andrew Young who was uneasy about the "'truck load of money" that was "way way way over the limit" in donations that is allowed by the Federal Election Commission, but said it was to "help John Edwards maintain his candidacy."
Higdon recalled that Cheri Young testified she insisted she be told by Edwards personally that the complicated plan to funnel Mellon's money through her personal account was legal and that Edwards curtly told her, "Get the money in."
"Ladies and gentlemen, that's what this case is all about," he told the jury.
Edwards so wanted to be a "player on the national scene" that he ignored the campaign finance rules established to give both the rich and the poor an equal say in politics.
"John Edwards forgot his own rhetoric," Higdon said, alluding to Edwards' "two Americas" campaign speeches. "He had no problem dividing the two Americas when it served his own purpose."
Higdon started his closing argument by recalling that December 2006 day when Edwards declared his candidacy.
"He wanted to be our leader. He asked for our vote," Higdon said. In the audience that day was Rielle Hunter, and on "that day, the seeds of his destruction were sown."
After Edwards was photographed with Hunter in Beverley Hills in 2007, he became desperate to hide the affair, prosecutors said, relying on Andrew Young to hide Hunter, even claim to be the father of her daughter.
Young collected $725,000 from Mellon, who gave money without asking questions, knowing only that it was going places other than Edwards' official campaign coffers.
"There was probably no one else on the planet who wanted John Edwards to be president more than Bunny Mellon," Higdon said.
An additional $400,000 came from Fred Baron, Edwards' former campaign treasurer, who provided luxury homes and shopping sprees to Hunter.
Prosecutors said Edwards knew about it all, and when he heard Baron talking about the money he gave Hunter, "John Edwards said nothing. No questions, no comments, no denial, no challenge, no nothing."
Edwards, a famed trial lawyer himself, never took the stand in his own defense. Nor did jurors hear directly from Rielle Hunter.
Edwards' defense lasted just three days and consisted mostly of a forensic accounting of bank statements and phone records. That testimony contrasted sharply with three weeks of prosecution witness who detailed Edwards' sordid affair but never said Edwards had any direct knowledge that he was violating campaign finance laws.