Closing arguments in the John Edwards trial have ended–now, the fate of the former U.S. senator rests in the hands of 12 men and women.
The two closing arguments were entirely different.
Prosecutor Robert Higdon’s lead-off presentation to the jury was delivered as a down-home, straightforward, and effective story. Higdon, a man with a genteel Southern style and a perfect haircut, wove together the facts of a powerful politician’s illicit affair. He tossed in accusations about billionaire supporters whose “illegal campaign contributions” hid their friend’s pregnant mistress, and punctuated the story with a refrain about the “seeds of destruction” Edwards planted in his own life, and how they grew to choke out his political and personal ambitions. It was a simple and appealing narrative worthy of comparison to the writings of Greensboro, N.C.’s native son, O. Henry.
Also effective was lead defense attorney Abbe Lowell’s closing statement, but unlike Higdon’s, it was delivered to the jury in complex sentences with multiple clauses, and peppered with the legalistic phase “reasonable doubt.” Lowell’s final minutes were full of dramatic gestures and pauses as he spoke of the Edwards family, how they have cried over this scandal. “John has made so many mistakes, but John has also paid such a large price,” he emphasized. “Among the mistakes are not these charges.”
The prosecutor’s summary of the case recounted how Edwards’s campaign staffer Josh Brumberger was the first to try to warn the candidate about the “perception problem” created by the presence of videographer Rielle Hunter, who seemed way too cozy with the boss. Other senior staffers warned the Edwardses too. “Edwards denied the affair and decided to punish Mr. Brumberger,” Higdon said. “He fired the man who put the campaign above himself.”
When the affair became too obvious to lie about—after his wife Elizabeth had discovered the truth and was told by her husband that his transgressions were over—Edwards turned to his loyal aide Andrew Young for help.
“Andrew Young gave up his dignity and self-respect…and agreed to help hide the continuing affair,” Higdon said. “But there was a problem. It became bigger and harder to hide” once Hunter became pregnant.
Throughout his lengthy remarks the prosecutor wove reminders about how every time Edwards got himself into an awkward position with Hunter, he turned to Young to help make the problem go away. Assisted by a cast of wealthy characters reminiscent of those in The Great Gatsby—Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron, to name just two—Young assisted Edwards as he continued, in Higdon’s words, to “deceive, deny and manipulate” to keep his 2008 presidential campaign alive.
The prosecutor recounted the day of September 27, 2006 when reporters from the National Enquirer showed up at the New Jersey home where the pregnant Hunter was staying. Edwards made the snap decision that she should immediately travel to North Carolina and stay with the Youngs and their three children in their gated community. This was the same day Edwards announced from New Hampshire his decision to accept public financing for his presidential race.
“That very night, the same day Cheri Young had had a medical procedure and was still wearing EEG wires on her head,” Higdon reminded the jury, “Rielle Hunter appeared and said, ‘Here I am!’ with a spin” in the Youngs’s entryway.
The prosecutor continued to paint the facts in a light that he hoped would cause the jury to see that it was Edwards who foisted the problem of his mistress onto others and in the end callously turned on the most loyal of his employees, Andrew Young. “The seeds of destruction he’d planted became weeds and began to choke out his campaign.”
More outrageous demands on the Youngs followed, Higdon said. Like the Edwards’s idea that Andrew claim paternity to throw the media off the scent of scandal. And the plan for them to whisk Hunter away from North Carolina in mid-December 2006 after the National Enquirer snapped photos of the mistress and her baby bump outside a Chapel Hill supermarket.
Edward’s campaign finance director Baron provided the private jet to fly them around the country and in the end would provide about $800,000 to help Edwards cover up his problem. Checks totaling $725,000 would come in from Bunny Mellon.
“This wasn’t just a friend helping a friend,” the prosecutor said. “This was a full rescue operation – rescue of a presidential campaign teetering on the brink of success or extinction.”
After running a successful campaign for U.S. Senate, presidential and vice presidential campaigns in 2004, and then engaging in the 2008 run for the White House, Higdon insisted to the jury, “John Edwards knew what the campaign laws were.”
Even after Edwards lost the all-important Iowa caucus in January 2008 and was forced to drop out of the presidential race later that month the mistress coverup continued, the prosecutor stressed. Because, as he prompted the jury to remember, Edwards still harbored visions that he could be vice president, attorney general, or a U.S. Supreme Court justice, even after being told by his press secretary, Jennifer Palmieri, that he was “deluded” to think so.
“The primary reason to take the money from Mrs. Mellon and Mr. Baron was to save his campaign,” the prosecutor hammered home. “His wife already knew about the affair.” And Higdon got in a dig about Edwards’s oft-mentioned ideal of fighting poverty and bringing together the two Americas, rich and poor.
“He forgot his own rhetoric,” the prosecutor said in conclusion.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell is a wiry man who seems to never stop moving when he speaks in a courtroom. But when he took his place to address the jury on this day he began by standing stock-still and speaking in a low, serious tone. The room listened closely.
“There is a difference between a sin and a felony.” As Lowell nodded slightly toward his client. “He’s already confessed his sin … and he will spend a life sentence for that.” After that dramatic opening Lowell resumed his normal stage presence, moving and gesturing to emphasize his points.
“John was a bad husband. There is not the remotest of chances that John has or did violate campaign finance laws.” Lowell said firmly, and added that if cheating husbands were to be found guilty of serious crimes, “We better build more jails and courtrooms.”
And then Lowell turned to the man he called the “cooperator”—Andrew Young. (Young was given immunity by the U.S. Justice Department in return for his testimony.) Lowell unleashed a stream of scornful and blistering comments about Andrew and Cheri Young, calling them liars and thieves, and referring to them as “these two who could shame Bonnie and Clyde.” He repeated the fact that the Youngs used some of the leftover Bunny Money to finish their $1.6 million home. Lowell sarcastically recalled Andrew Young’s testimony that Edwards didn’t want to know any of the particulars of their cross-country odyssey with the pregnant Hunter or how the finances worked in case he might be sworn in as attorney general someday.
“As my daughters would say, ‘Reeaaally?’” Lowell almost sneered. “You can laugh out loud about that evidence.”
The lead defense attorney also took pains to paint his client as the victim. He lashed out at the government’s decision to call a witness who told a heart-wrenching story about how Mrs. Edwards, her angst unbearable after a National Enquirer report, stood on an airport tarmac in front of staffers and ripped off her blouse and bra while screaming at her husband, “You don’t see me!” Lowell declared it was an “awful thing” for prosecutors to have done.
Glancing at his watch no fewer than six times to make sure he didn’t exceed his prescribed time limit, Lowell boldly declared that it was Andrew Young who had come up with the plan that he should falsely claim paternity —not John Edwards. Lowell told the jury his client had no idea Young was getting money from the 101-year-old Mrs. Mellon, and besides, he said, the notes she sent with the checks proved the money wasn’t destined for the campaign. “How many campaign contributions come with a handwritten note that ends with, ‘A big hug—All my love, Bunny?’” Lowell asked the jury with his eyebrows raised and his head nodding. “There was a scheme…but it was not John’s idea,” he said emphatically. Lowell counseled the jury that if they had any debate on important points during their deliberation, then “that is reasonable doubt…” and they may not find Edwards guilty.
As is custom, lead prosecutor David Harbach, a usually ramrod straight-and-narrow presenter-of-facts, got the final say with the jury. He was surprisingly casual when he looked at the men and women in the juror’s box and said, “Much of what you just heard were distractions. Don’t fall for it.”
Harbach turned to rehabilitating Andrew Young. “They want you to think that the man they’ve been ripping apart … is actually a criminal mastermind,” he said with a smile. “It was Mr. Young’s idea to claim paternity and all John Edwards did was ‘grab a lifeline?’ Doesn’t that sound a little backward to you? Come on folks!”
He also addressed the money issue. “Here’s a newsflash!” Harbach said, stretching his arms out wide. “He kept a lot of the money for himself.” But it is not Andrew Young who started the conspiracy, he said, and Young is not the one on trial.
Harbach recalled several actions Edwards took that pointed to his guilt, including an overheard conversation on Fred Baron’s private plane during which Baron declared the media would never find Hunter “because I’m moving her around.” Edwards was knee to knee with his billionaire friend and so he had to know about everything, Harbach said.
“Of course he knew. He was in it from the get-go. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for John Edwards.”
Tomorrow, the jury will begin its deliberations to decide if that is, in fact, true.