John Edwards' team wrapped up their defense Wednesday without calling the ex-presidential candidate, his mistress or daughter to testify, a move experts say was intended to shift focus from a political sex scandal to the nitty-gritty of campaign finance law.
"The defense wasn't sexy, but the defense doesn't want sexy. It wants an acquittal," said Steve Friedland, a professor at Elon University School of Law and former federal prosecutor who has attended much of the trial.
Experts said Edwards' bare-bone defense, which lasted just over two days, may be enough to avoid conviction on charges he authorized more than $1 million secretly provided by two wealthy donors to help hide an affair with pregnant mistress Rielle Hunter as he sought the White House in 2008.
The prosecution presented nearly three weeks of evidence and testimony from a former Edwards aide and campaign advisors that painted Edwards as a frequent liar, but showed no direct evidence, he intended to break federal campaign finance laws, the experts said.
Many observers believed Edwards would testify so the jury could hear directly from the former U.S. senator and trial lawyer, who had a reputation for his ability to sway jurors. But putting Edwards and Hunter on the stand would have exposed the defense to withering cross-examination about Edwards' past lies and personal failings.
"The defense may very well have felt that their case was solid enough to go to the jury without the risk of the personal testimony of these witnesses, which would undoubtedly resurrect the salacious details of the affair for the jury," said Catherine Dunham, another Elon law professor who has been attending the trial.
The defense also elected not to call Edwards' oldest daughter, Cate, a 30-year-old lawyer who has sat behind her father nearly every day, as a character witness to help humanize him.
At one point during the trial, Cate Edwards ran out of the courtroom in tears during testimony about her cancer-stricken mother, Elizabeth, confronting her father about his extramarital affair.
Closing arguments in the case are set for Thursday; U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles gave each side two hours to make their case. The jury will likely begin deliberations Friday.
Edwards is charged with six criminal counts including conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting contributions that exceeded campaign finance limits, and causing his campaign to file a false financial disclosure report. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.
The former Democratic presidential candidate has sat quietly at the defense table throughout his trial, whispering with his lawyers and rarely showing reaction to the often emotional testimony from witnesses who were once among his strongest supporters and closest friends.
He has made no public statements since October, following a pre-trial hearing where a judge refused to throw out the case.
At the trial, prosecutors have shown two members of Edwards' inner circle, campaign finance chairman Fred Baron and once-close aide Andrew Young, engaged in a yearlong cover-up to hide the married presidential candidate's mistress from the media.
The married Young falsely claimed paternity of his boss' baby and received $725,000 in secret checks from an elderly heiress, using some of the money to care for Hunter.
Prosecutors have introduced phone records, voicemails and other evidence showing Edwards in frequent contact with Baron, Young and Hunter while Hunter was in hiding.
Former members of Edwards' campaign also testified that Baron spoke of "moving Hunter around" in the candidate's presence and that Edwards told his speechwriter he knew "all along" what Baron was up to.
But in 14 days of testimony, no witness ever said Edwards knew he was violating campaign finance laws, a key element of criminal intent the government must prove to win a conviction.
"There was no direct evidence that John Edwards knew he was violating campaign contribution laws," Friedland said. "Juries like smoking guns. There were no smoking guns here."
Prosecutors on Wednesday finished cross-examination of Jim Walsh, a retired FBI agent hired by the defense to analyze the financial records of Young and his wife, Cheri.
Walsh used banking records to show the Youngs siphoned off most of the money from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon to build the couple's expansive $1.6 million dream house. Baron wired another $325,000 to the company building the home.
Jurors were read a stipulation Wednesday about a sex tape found by Young that was purportedly filmed by Hunter when she was with Edwards. Jurors were told Andrew Young considered selling the tape, and told Edwards he had it in a 2008 meeting on a North Carolina roadside.
Defense lawyers have suggested the aide intended to use the tape to blackmail his former boss.
Another stipulation dealt with medical records indicating the exact date Edwards and Young likely conceived their child, May 28, 2007. The date conflicts with Young's testimony of the date he said Hunter first told Edwards she was pregnant.
Before his indictment, Edwards rejected a potential plea agreement with federal prosecutors that would have allowed him to serve as little as six months and keep his law license.
Edwards made his fortune handling medical malpractice and corporate negligence cases before turning to politics following the death of his 16-year-old son Wade in a 1996 auto accident. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998 and was Sen. John Kerry's running mate in 2004.
Elizabeth Edwards died of cancer in December 2010. Edwards is a single parent to his daughter and son, aged 13 and 11, at the family's gated estate outside Chapel Hill.
After years of denials, Edwards admitted fathering his Hunter's baby in January 2010, shortly after agreeing to pay child support. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.