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Government rests its case against ex-Senator Edwards

Former U.S. Senator John Edwards, 58, walks to the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., May 7, 2012. REUTERS/Davis Turner
Former U.S. Senator John Edwards, 58, walks to the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., May 7, 2012. REUTERS/Davis Turner

By Colleen Jenkins

GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Prosecutors wrapped up their case against former Senator John Edwards on Thursday in dramatic fashion, playing a video of a 2008 TV interview in which the married politician said he wanted to tell the truth about his affair with Rielle Hunter.

But Edwards lied to ABC "Nightline" reporter Bob Woodruff when he denied paternity of a child he later admitted having fathered with Hunter.

The one-term North Carolina senator said he did not know about money used to hide his mistress as he was seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination - the same stance he has maintained during his trial on campaign finance charges.

"Nothing has been done at my request," he told Woodruff in the interview. "I had nothing to do with any money being paid."

Prosecutors rested their case after presenting nearly three weeks of evidence and two dozen witnesses in an effort to prove Edwards violated federal election laws during his failed 2008 presidential bid.

They accuse Edwards, 58, of soliciting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions from two wealthy supporters in an effort to conceal his pregnant mistress from the media and voters.

The government says the candidate knew his bid for the presidency would be doomed if the affair was exposed.

The defense says Edwards, who has pleaded not guilty, did not seek or receive any of the money. His lawyers argue the payments were meant to shield the affair from his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and not to influence the election, and thus should not be characterized as campaign contributions.

Edwards faces potential prison time and a fine if convicted of any of six counts, including conspiring to solicit the money, accepting more than the $2,300 allowed from any one donor and failing to report the payments as contributions.

QUESTIONS OF INTENT

With Edwards' parents and eldest daughter, Cate, often looking on from the courtroom audience, former campaign workers and supporters have painted an unflattering portrait of the two-time presidential hopeful who was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004.

Witnesses revealed tawdry details of the affair that contributed to Edwards' political downfall. They said he brushed them off, sometimes crudely, when they voiced concerns about Hunter's interactions with Edwards on the campaign trail.

But the former candidate's moral lapses are not at the heart of the case. To get a conviction, prosecutors must prove Edwards knowingly and willfully violated the law.

Several legal experts said the government could face an uphill battle getting a guilty verdict in what has been called an unprecedented interpretation of election laws.

"Juries like the smoking gun," said Steven Friedland, an Elon University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "This case does not have one."

Several prosecution witnesses testified that Edwards had knowledge of his national campaign finance chairman, Fred Baron, offering financial support to Hunter and the daughter she gave birth to in February 2008.

But the defense raised questions about the credibility of the chief witness tying Edwards to the alleged conspiracy. Edwards' attorneys said former campaign aide Andrew Young pocketed much of the money from Baron and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, and used some of it to build a $1.5 million home.

Young testified that Edwards asked him to request the money and falsely claim paternity of Hunter's child. The aide said he and his family spent months living with Hunter in luxury accommodations paid for by Baron as part of a cover-up.

With Baron now deceased and 101-year-old Mellon physically unable to attend the trial, prosecutors could not call either of the donors to testify. The government also opted against putting Hunter on the stand.

Experts said jurors will have to decide whether they believe Young's or Edwards' version of what happened, as well as separate the personal aspects of the case from the legal issues.

"I think the jury is going to be confused," said Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles gave jurors a long weekend break, telling them the case will resume in Greensboro on Monday with any evidence the defense chooses to present.

Attorneys will be back in court on Friday. Edwards' team is expected to ask the judge to dismiss the charges.

(Reporting By Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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