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Closing arguments in Edwards trial set for Thursday

By Anne Blythe, McClatchy Newspapers –

GREENSBORO, N.C. — When prosecutors and defense lawyers in the John Edwards trial take their turns before jurors Thursday morning for closing arguments, each side will weave together testimony of witnesses with hundreds of pages of phone records, financial statements, political schedules, email and voicemail messages.

Prosecutors will portray one picture of what went on behind the scenes of the Edwards campaign as he sought the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Defense attorneys will use the same evidence to offer a different version.

Some things will not be in dispute.

Edwards, a former U.S. senator in the midst of his second run for the presidency, had an extramarital affair and a child out of wedlock with Rielle Hunter, a former campaign videographer he met at a New York hotel in 2006.

Philanthropist Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, a 101-year-old woman with an expansive estate in the horse country of northern Virginia, issued checks from June 2007 to January 2008 totaling $725,000 that went to Bryan Huffman, an interior decorator in Monroe, N.C., who endorsed them and sent them to Andrew Young, then a political aide of Edwards.

Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who died in October 2008, provided $801,318 for expenses related to supporting Hunter, Young and his wife, Cheri between Dec. 1, 2007 and Dec. 31, 2008. It was unclear how the payments continued after his death, but no one disputed that they did.

At the core of the case is whether the payments from Mellon and Baron were campaign contributions subject to contribution limits and public reporting requirements. Baron died of cancer in October of 2008. Mellon, given her age, was not called to testify about her intentions for the money, though her lawyer testified she only wanted to help a friend.

Edwards’ lawyers contend the payments were gifts that went from his supporters to others and he did not receive a dime. On Thursday, they are almost certain to remind the jury that more than $1 million of the payments — some $700,000 from Mellon and another $330,000 from Baron — went to and stayed with the Youngs to help build their $1.5 million home.

Prosecutors contend the money used to hide Hunter by moving her and the Youngs around the country was spent to protect Edwards’ chances of winning election. Therefore, they argue, the checks from Mellon and the payments, flights, hotels and rental homes provided by Baron were campaign contributions that exceeded individual contribution limits and were not reported by the campaign as required.

That interpretation — one disputed by federal election law experts produced by the defense — led to Edwards’ indictment last June on six criminal charges related to violations of campaign finance laws. Edwards, a former trial lawyer who rejected a plea agreement and gambled on a trial, has fought those charges these past three and a half weeks in a Greensboro courtroom.

Though campaign finance law is at the crux of the case, there was only limited testimony about what did and didn’t constitute a contribution. Much of the testimony from government witnesses focused on Edwards’ extramarital affair and how it created complications in his campaign and pained his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth, who died of the disease in December 2010.

The closing arguments are expected to be followed Thursday by Judge Catherine Eagles instructing the jury about the law governing the case.

She cautioned the jury at the outset of the trial on April 23 that this was not a case about whether Edwards had been a good politician or a good husband. She said the case was about the law and whether Edwards broke it.

Many legal analysts say the outcome of this case that will define the reach of campaign finance law at a time when some traditional restrictions have been lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United. That ruling found that the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.

The defense team rested its case Wednesday without calling the former Democratic candidate to the stand. They also did not call two others named as potential defense witnesses, Cate Edwards, the 30-year-old daughter of the defendant, or Hunter.

The defense resting as it did without testimony from the two principals in the Edwards scandal — Edwards and Hunter — made for an anticlimactic final day of testimony in a trial that has offered a remarkable story line of deceit, sex and vast wealth that drew the interest of national and international media.

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