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Former Senator John Edwards' affair and child out of wedlock derailed a political rise that put him on the Democrats' 2004 White House ticket, but the one-time trial lawyer held his head high on Thursday after a North Carolina jury delivered his most personal victory yet.
Twelve jurors in the state Edwards represented in the U.S. Senate from 1999 to 2005 acquitted him on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions given during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination four years ago.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial on five other counts because the jury was deadlocked about whether Edwards, 58, took money from two wealthy donors to keep voters from learning he was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, with a campaign videographer.
The jury's decision on the ninth day of deliberations capped a nearly six-week-long trial that included salacious testimony more befitting of a soap opera than a campaign for the country's highest political office.
Jurors heard about tawdry affair details, furtive phone calls and secret donor checks written under the guise of buying furniture, as former campaign workers and supporters painted an unflattering portrait of Edwards.
The trial's outcome marked yet another dramatic turn of events for the two-time presidential hopeful who beat a Republican incumbent senator in his first political race and became the Democrats' vice presidential nominee just six years later.
As the jury's verdict was read, Edwards, who did not testify during the trial and faced possible fines and prison time if convicted, slumped back in his seat in relief.
Later, standing in front of the federal courthouse in Greensboro, he maintained his innocence and choked up as he spoke of his affection for the 4-year-old daughter he fathered with then-mistress Rielle Hunter.
"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," he said, flanked by his parents and 30-year-old daughter, Cate, who stood by him throughout the proceedings.
"I am responsible, and if I want to find the person who should be held accountable for my sins, honestly I don't have to go any further than the mirror. It's me. It is me and me alone."
He went on to call his child with Hunter "my precious Quinn, who I love more than any of you could ever imagine" and said he still hoped to one day help the country's poor children.
Justice Department prosecutors are unlikely to retry Edwards, but a final decision will be made in the coming days, a law enforcement source said. A department spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the jury results or what would happen next.
JURORS SURPRISE COURTROOM
The government accused Edwards of orchestrating a cover-up plot that funneled more than $900,000 from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and trial lawyer Fred Baron to Hunter and campaign aide Andrew Young, who said he once falsely claimed paternity of Edwards' love-child at the candidate's request.
Jurors found Edwards not guilty of accepting illegal campaign contributions from Mellon in 2008.
But they could not reach a unanimous decision on a similar count involving money from Mellon in 2007; two counts of accepting illegal campaign money from Baron; one count of conspiring to solicit illegal campaign funds; and one count of failing to report donor payments in excess of $2,300 as political contributions.
The defense said all along that Edwards knew nothing of the supporters' payments, which were meant as personal gifts to shield Elizabeth Edwards from her husband's indiscretions, not to influence the election.
Asked how he felt after the acquittal and mistrial, Wallace Edwards, the former senator's 80-year-old father, pointed at the smile on his face. "This says it all," he said.
Federal prosecutors likely will weigh the political risk and expense of a retrial as they decide how to proceed with a case that took an unprecedented view of what qualifies as a political contribution, said Elon University assistant law professor Michael Rich.
"I'm sure that they will spin it that a hung jury simply indicates that they had a strong case but couldn't convince a couple of reticent jurors," Rich said. "I do think we saw their strongest case, and it just wasn't enough."
Rich said Young, who received immunity as the government's chief witness, ultimately proved untrustworthy.
Jurors never heard from several other key players in the political drama. Neither Edwards nor Hunter, who lives in Charlotte with their daughter, took the stand. A spokeswoman for Hunter said she and Edwards are raising their daughter together.
Also missing from the trial were Elizabeth Edwards, who died in 2010, and the two donors whose money was at the heart of the case. Baron died in 2008, and the 101-year-old Mellon was said to be physically unable to attend.
After tedious days of deliberations that included the specter of the four alternates wearing color-coordinated shirts, the main panel of jurors surprised the judge by announcing they had reached a verdict on only a single charge.
Eagles sent the group back for more deliberations, but they soon alerted the court that further discussions would not yield a different outcome. The judge promptly declared the mistrial on the remaining five counts.
"No, you didn't reach a verdict on all the counts, and that can be frustrating," she told jurors. But, she added, "it is clear you gave this case your consideration."
Eagles later ruled she planned to wait a week before releasing the names and home towns of the jurors.
Hampton Dellinger, a North Carolina lawyer who attended the trial, said Edwards' decisions to turn down a reported plea offer and skip taking the stand had paid off.
"There's no question he drove the defense strategy," Dellinger said. "He made tough call after tough call, and it worked out for him."