By MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Jurors in John Edwards campaign corruption trial said Friday they were deadlocked on most charges because the former presidential contender never actually received any money from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress, and they didn't believe the star witness' account of the cover-up.
On network talk shows, even jurors who thought Edwards was guilty on at least some of the six counts of campaign finance fraud said the prosecution simply didn't have enough evidence. The jurors did not say what the split was, in terms of guilty votes.
"We tried to put our feelings aside and what we were doing was just looking at the facts to come up with a verdict," juror Cindy Aquaro said on NBC's "Today" show.
Juror Jonathan Nunn said he thought the money from the two wealthy donors were personal gifts, not campaign donations.
The jurors acquitted Edwards on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions and deadlocked on the other five.
"Everybody's got their own beliefs based off of what they saw," Nunn told ABC's "Good Morning America." ''They stood their ground. They stood by their decision and I respect that."
Trial observers said the jury's decision bore out criticism from the earliest stages of the case that it was a reach, that prosecutors went after the ex-U.S. senator without the kind of evidence that justified the charges that he masterminded a scheme to use campaign donations to hide his pregnant mistress from the public and his terminally ill wife.
"As noted by nearly every campaign finance lawyer who considered the matter, this was a lousy case," said Melanie Sloan, executive director for the campaign finance watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "All the salacious details prosecutors offered up to prove that Edwards is, indeed, despicable, were not enough to persuade the jury to convict him."
Edwards faced six felony charges involving nearly $1 million provided by two wealthy political donors that was used to help hide the Democrat's mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House in 2008. He faced a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
To convict Edwards, prosecutors needed to show not only that the candidate knew about the secret payments, which he denied, but that he knew he was violating federal law by accepting them. But the government was unable to produce any witness who said Edwards knowingly violated the law. Even former Edwards aide Andrew Young testified that Edwards told him he had consulted campaign finance lawyers who assured him the money was legal.
A former trial lawyer, Edwards was so unimpressed with the testimony against him that when the government rested, he turned to a member of his defense team and asked dismissively, "That's their case?"
When it was their turn, his lawyers presented just two days of evidence. Edwards elected not to take the stand in his own defense.
"This is a case that should define the difference between a wrong and a crime ... between a sin and a felony," Edwards' lead attorney Abbe Lowell told the jury during closing arguments. "John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those."
Presented with no damning evidence and no obvious victim beyond the public's trust, jurors couldn't see their way to convicting the charismatic ex-candidate. Prosecutors are unlikely to retry the case, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the decision will undergo review in the coming days.
Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor and Raleigh defense attorney who attended the trial, said he thought the prosecutors took their best shot with what was ultimately a very weak case.
"They got their best witnesses, their best evidence and the judge ruled in their favor on all major evidentiary issues," Shanahan said. "In the end, the jury just didn't believe them."
Steve Friedland, another former federal prosecutor who watched the case from inside the courtroom, said the jury's verdict was not surprising, considering the government had no smoking gun to prove Edwards guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
But, he predicted, Edwards won't fare as well in the court of public opinion.