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John Edwards rose to political prominence as a wealthy, handsome trial attorney. He made news as a two-time presidential candidate. Yesterday, he received some news. He will not be going to prison. A jury in Greensboro, North Carolina acquitted him on one count of campaign finance violations and deadlocked on other charges. The decision ended a case that included testimony revealing how Edwards cheating on his terminally ill wife, fathered a child with his mistress and attempted to conceal the affair. North Carolina Public Radio's Jeff Tiberii reports.
JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: As the words not guilty pierced the small, windowless federal courtroom, John Edwards leaned back in his seat. Moments later, after the judge declared a mistrial on the five other counts of campaign finance violations, the former U.S. Senator and distinguished trial attorney turned to wrap his arms first around his daughter Cate, then his parents. Four years removed from aspirations of the White House, Edwards had avoided a conviction.
JOHN EDWARDS: While I do not believe I did anything illegal or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong. And there is no one else responsible for my sins.
TIBERII: In closing arguments, the defense told the jury Edwards had committed a sin, but no felony. The government accused Edwards of orchestrating a plan to use about a million dollars from two donors in an attempt to hide his pregnant mistress.
EDWARDS: None of the people who came to court and testified are responsible. Nobody working for the government is responsible. I am responsible.
TIBERII: Prosecutors said the cover-up was to save the campaign. The defense countered hiding the affair was to protect his family. During the six-week trial, dozens of witnesses offered emotional testimony about the affair that terminated a presidential run. But, there was no evidence that resembled a smoking gun, and neither Edwards nor his mistress Rielle Hunter took the stand.
HAMPTON DELLINGER: The government, you know, had to show John Edwards knowingly and willfully violated the Federal Election Campaign Act.
TIBERII: Hampton Dellinger is a lawyer who used to teach Campaign Election Law at Duke University.
DELLINGER: They didn't have a confession from John Edwards. In fact, they had evidence that every time he was asked whether this was lawful, he said it was.
TIBERII: Following almost nine days of deliberations, the jury couldn't decide five of the charges. Ultimately, jurors didn't agree whether there was criminal intent, or if the money from the donors was, in fact, a campaign contribution. The Federal Election Commission and Justice Department had the same dispute. Legal experts said throughout the trial, this would be a tough case for the government to prove. Former assistant U.S. Attorney Kieran Shanahan was asked about the prospects of a retrial.
KIERAN SHANAHAN: Well, that's really more of a political question. But I think that we've been through this once - the novel nature of the case, the absence of key witnesses. It makes no sense for the government to put the people of the United States or John Edwards through a trial again.
TIBERII: Two federal officials told NPR the former U.S. Senator is unlikely to face a retrial.
The verdict was another setback for the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, following the failed prosecution of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
With the look of a Kennedy, Edwards scaled the political later, climbing from successful malpractice attorney, to U.S. senator, to the vice presidential nominee, all in less than a decade.
Then, his wife of more than 30 years, Elizabeth, got terminally sick with breast cancer and a mistress, pregnancy and unraveling of a promising future all followed. As John Edwards walked out of federal court yesterday, having won the biggest case of his life, he spoke for five minutes and thanked each of his children, including the one at the center of it all.
EDWARDS: And then, finally, my precious Quinn...
TIBERII: Pausing for six seconds after mentioning her name.
EDWARDS: ...who I love more than any of you could ever imagine, and I am so close to and so, so grateful for.
TIBERII: It was a symbolic moment, with Edwards expressing love for the daughter he once told a national TV audience wasn't his. Edwards ended by saying he didn't know what was next, but believed God had more in store for him. And with that, he climbed into an idling SUV and drove off with his family.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberii in Greensboro, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.