The Edwards' Defense: He's a Sinner, But Not a Criminal

A final, if expected, blow to the reputation of the guy who was once headed for big things—if not president, Supreme Court justice, or maybe attorney general?—comes from his own defense team.

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You might be tempted, knowing what you know about John Edwards, to think that he's simply been acting penitent, his head bowed and face drawn in so many of those photos of him heading into or out of the courtroom where he's been on trial for the alleged violation of campaign finance laws. Perhaps he is; we can't really know. But a final, if expected, blow to the reputation of the guy who was once headed for big things—if not president, Supreme Court justice, or maybe attorney general?—comes from his own defense team, who definitely want him to look like he feels sorry.

Edwards' lawyer Abbe Lowell told the jury Thursday in closing arguments for his client's federal corruption case, “John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those. But he has pleaded not guilty to violating the law." As Kim Severson notes in the New York Times, Lowell actually pointed to a Bible (translation: sin) and a law book (the law) to bring the point home.

Severson writes that Edwards' apparences are "a far cry from the man once able to convey tremendous power when he walked into a room. He often looked tired, moving around the courtroom stiffly while the government spent almost three weeks laying out a case filled with lurid details about an extramarital affair and its attempted cover-up, secret payments, crumbling relationships and political maneuvering." Edwards used to flit about with his expensive haircuts, looking dapper and handsome (a look that appealed to Bunny Mellon, his now 101-year-old former donor). But now, whether because he's truly dejected or simply really good at playing the part, he's quieter, sadder, with frown lines to prove it. His life has changed forever—there are the reports that he just sits at home alone, but for his regrets—and even if he escapes conviction, his political life is pretty much done. Earlier Thursday, The New York Post's Tara Palmeri noted, prosector Bobby Higdon had emphasized how different Edwards is now than we thought him then, using a line from the politician's stump speech about "the two Americas" to remind the jury that "campaign-finance laws protect the poor by limiting the power the wealthy have on election results."

It's been four weeks of the John Edwards trial over the alleged misuse of $1.5 million in donations from Fred Baron and Bunny Mellon, and defense has rested after three days of testimony. While government prosecutors claim he's in violation of campaign finance laws, the defense says Edwards didn't use the money to convince voters to vote for him, but instead used it to hide his mistress and the mother of his child, Rielle Hunter, from his dying wife Elizabeth. The ground he's on, in terms of sin, well, it's pretty firm, or shaky, or whatever the right word is for sin.

While not attempting to deny Edwards' sin, Lowell does compare it to the sins of another man, Andrew Young, the former campaign aide whom the defense blames for taking the money to finance his own lifestyle, "which included a $1.8 million house and $35,000 for porcelain veneers for his teeth," and for, in fact, orchestrating the whole scheme to hide Hunter. "Of the Youngs, Lowell said, 'They could shame Bonnie and Clyde,'" writes The Los Angeles Times' David Zucchino.

Of course, the Youngs are not on trial.

Jurors will now decide the "law" part of Lowell's question: whether or not Edwards is guilty of six counts of campaign fraud and conspiracy, for which he could get 30 years in jail. A lot of the decision, say the experts, depends on who these people are. Per The Times' Severson:

“It’s been an ambitious case from the start, and the government’s burden is huge,” said Catherine Ross Dunham, an associate dean at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro. “Who you have on the jury really matters in testimonial cases.”

While Lowell told the jury "Please let this sad chapter end and stop with your verdicts of not guilty,” it would probably take more for this sad chapter to close completely.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.