GREENSBORO, N.C. — A federal judge refused to throw out campaign corruption charges against John Edwards on Friday, meaning the former presidential hopeful will have to present his case to a jury.
Lawyers for Edwards argued before U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles that prosecutors failed to prove the 2008 candidate intentionally violated the law or that some of the alleged offenses actually occurred in the Middle District of North Carolina, the venue where he was indicted.
After two-and-a-half hours of arguments from the defense and rebuttal from the prosecution, the judge ruled quickly from the bench that the government had met its basic burden under the law.
"We will let the jury decide," Eagles said.
Motions to dismiss are routine in criminal trials, but rarely granted. The decision means Edwards' defense team will begin calling its first witnesses Monday, including former Federal Election Commission chairman Scott Thomas, political pollster Harrison Hickman and ex-Edwards attorney Wade Smith.
Lawyers for Edwards said they have not yet determined whether he'll take the stand.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations. He is accused of masterminding a scheme to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy donors to help hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Edwards' lead attorney, Abbe Lowell, made an impassioned argument Friday tearing down the government's evidence piece by piece, saying their case had numerous holes and they were expecting the judge to serve as the "pothole filler."
Chiefly, Lowell said that in 14 days of testimony the government failed to present any direct evidence Edwards intended to violate campaign finance laws when hiding his affair or lying about it to his wife, his campaign and the American people. Lots of cheating husbands lie, Lowell argued.
"They have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Edwards knew he was violating the law and did so with specific intent," Lowell told the judge. "No one is going to deny that Mr. Edwards lied and lied and lied. ... But what did he lie about?"
But Lowell also admitted for the first time that his client had some knowledge his campaign finance chairman Fred Baron was financially supporting his mistress, Rielle Hunter, while she was in hiding. Edwards had previously denied having any knowledge of the cover up orchestrated by two of his closest campaign confidants.
"Mr. Edwards definitely knew she was outside North Carolina, definitely knew she was on a plane and definitely knew that Baron was taking care of things," Lowell said. "No one is denying he knew. But does he know it's in the context of campaign laws?"
As he had argued in pre-trial hearings, Lowell said the government has taken the existing canon of federal campaign finance regulations and stretched them to try to fit conduct where the money was never deposited in a campaign account and wasn't spent for a traditional campaign purpose, such as paying staff or buying political ads.
"That would be like saying that everyone knows murder is against the law, but then applying that law when someone in an argument tells the other person to `drop dead,' and then the other person does, of a heart attack," he said.
Lowell asked: How was Edwards supposed to know he was violating the law when no one has ever before been charged for the same behavior? He noted former Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who Lowell also represented, got his wealthy parents to pay a secret "severance package" to a female staff member with whom he had an extramarital affair. Ensign wasn't charged, while Edwards was.
In response to one of Lowell's arguments, Judge Eagles said she thought the law on that point "seems pretty straightforward to me."
"Then I want to make it less straightforward to you," the fast-talking Washington lawyer replied, causing the gallery to erupt in laughter.
Lead prosecutor David V. Harbach wasn't amused. He especially seemed to bristle at the defense lawyer's narrow interpretation of the federal statute being cited by prosecutors. It defines a campaign contribution as anything of value given "for the purpose" of influencing an election.
Just as another of Lowell's famous former clients, Bill Clinton, once tried to parse the meaning of "is" during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Lowell quibbled with the word "the" in "for the purpose."
Lowell argued "the" means the secret money given by Edwards' donors couldn't be considered a campaign contribution if it was also given for any other reason, such as hiding the affair from his cancer-stricken wife.
"That is not supported by common sense," the prosecutor objected, adding that nothing in the law suggested Congress had intended influencing an election to be the sole possible purpose of a contribution.
"To say `for a purpose of' offends standard English construction," the exasperated prosecutor turned grammarian said.
Despite their case surviving the defense's motion to dismiss, legal observers in the courtroom agreed with Lowell's assessment that the government's case has been weak.
"They have established their case enough to get to a jury, but it has holes in it," said Kieran J. Shanahan, a Raleigh defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. "He is not charged with being a liar and he is not charged with having a baby out of wedlock. He is charged with breaking campaign finance laws."
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday by playing a tape of a 2008 national television interview in which the Democrat repeatedly lied about his extramarital affair and denied fathering his mistress' baby. Earlier testimony from a parade of former aides and advisers also showed an unappealing side of Edwards, casting him as a liar and lousy husband.
A key question is whether Edwards will take the stand.
Before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1998, Edwards made a fortune as a personal injury lawyer renowned for his ability to sway jurors. But his testimony would expose himself to a likely withering cross-examination about his many past lies and personal failings.
The defense could also call Hunter to the stand, which prosecutors declined to do. She could echo Edwards' position that he didn't have direct knowledge of the secret effort to care for her and keep her out of the public eye.
However, Friedland said he would be surprised to see it.
"She will simply call more attention to the lies surrounding her affair and pregnancy," he said.
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