A key witness in John Edwards' defense waffled today on the stand, changing his testimony about whether Edwards had told him that money obtained from a wealthy donor was for his "benefit" and was used to provide for his mistress and love child.
Wade Smith, a North Carolina trial lawyer who has represented Edwards, initially denied telling the attorney for wealthy backer Rachel "Bunny" Mellon that Edwards acknowledged the receipt or hundreds of thousands of dollars in what became known as "Bunny money."
Fred Forger, Mellon's lawyer, testified last week that he called Smith in an attempt to find out why the elderly philanthropist was writing so many checks. Forger asked Smith if the money was a gift for Edwards and whether Mellon should declare it as such on her taxes.
Smith got back to Forger telling him, "John Edwards has said he acknowledges now that this was for his benefit," Forger testified last week.
This morning, however, Smith denied making that statement. "I would never quote my client," he told the court.
But when the prosecution introduced a December 2008 email between Forger, Smith and another Edwards lawyer, Jim Cooney, indicating they had talked with Edwards about the money, Smith altered his story.
"I certainly would not have wanted to do that," Smith told the court.
When asked a third time if he ever told Forger the "Bunny money" was for Edwards' benefit, Smith again changed his answer, saying: "I have no recollection of saying that. I do not."
Edwards is on trial for allegedly using nearly $1 million in donations to hide his mistress Rielle Hunter and later their baby daughter during his quest for the 2008 presidential nomination. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Smith's testimony appears to complicate Edwards' claim that he was unaware that former aide Andrew Young collected $750,000 from Mellon on Edwards' behalf.
Young and his wife Cheri spent more than a year hiding Hunter from the public and the press, with Young even claiming paternity of Edwards' baby.
To bolster Edwards' claim, his lawyers called John Moylan, a friend of Edwards who accompanied him to Mellon's home where Moylan claims that Edwards learned for the first time that Young was soliciting the wealthy heiress for money.
"He was as surprised to hear it as I was," Moylan said of Edwards' reaction. "Sen. Edwards said 'Bunny, you should not be sending money to anyone.'"
"John and I discussed it. It was a significant issue. There was a concern that… Andrew Young was using Sen. Edwards' name to get money from Ms. Mellon," Moylan testifed.
Prosecutors tried to slap down that story by introducing the transcript of a phone call Edwards made to Young, using Moylan's cell phone, just a day before the pair visited Mellon at her sprawling Virginia estate.
"Everything is a go," Edwards told Young. "I'm going to make sure you're protected and included. This is John Moylan's phone I'm using. Keep your head up."
To further the claim that Young was pocketing money from Mellon, his defense team introduced Young's bank statements showing $750,000 he received from Mellon.
Also on today's witness list was edwards' daughter Cate, but she likely will not testify until later in the week.
Lawyers said they would also decide in the next day or two whether Edwards himself will take the stand.
Cate Edwards testimony will likely be an emotional packed moment in the trial as she will be expected to corroborate her father's version of events.
"I think we will expect to hear more details from Cate how he loved Elizabeth, how he tended to her in her final days," reporter Sandra Sobieraj Westfall told ABC News. "You will hear more about that that was his primary concern in hiding the affair, protecting his family."
"Cate told me not too long ago, I'm the child of two parents... And she is going to stick by him. She said that is what families do. She believes he committed no crime," said Westfall, who is the Washington bureau chief for People Magazine and has covered the family for years and has sources close to the Edwards family.
Westfall noted that Cate Edwards, who is a lawyer, was recently married and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband. But she has returned to North Carolina for her father.
"She's a newlywed, and her husband lives in DC full time. Cate has packed up her life and went to down Chapel Hill to help her dad out with her two younger siblings. She is really kind of head of the family right now, taking her mother's place, coordinating the kids' schedules. And she is working it out with her dad. They are very close still, you know," Westfall said.
Her younger brother and sister are Emma, 14, and Jack, 12.
It could be an emotionally fraught moment for Cate Edwards.
"Cate has never publically spoken about the effect of the scandal on her... She has never really opened up publically about what this affair meant. So I think there is going to be a lot of sympathy for her and a lot of hanging on every word she has to say," Westfall said.
Kieran Shanahan, a lawyer who has been present every day of the trial, told ABC News that Edwards' daughter could be a powerful ally if she has real evidence to present.
"Cate's brother died when she was young, her mom died of cancer. Her father has fallen very hard, very fast, but she is there standing behind him," Shanahan said.
"All of that can make her sympathetic to the jury, could humanize John Edwards to the jury, but only if she has some salient points to make. If she's up there and it seems there is no real reason for her to be up there, the jurors may scratch their heads and think John Edwards is using his daughter to try and help himself in a criminal case," Shanahan said.
The daughter was expected to be called as a witness and normally witnesses are not allowed to attend court proceedings before they testify. But Cate Edwards was given a waiver by Judge Catherine Eagles to sit through testimony because she is her father's closest family member. She has entered the court and left with her father almost daily and takes her place directly behind her dad when court is in session.
She has smiled and even chuckled when something in the courtroom went their way, but much of the testimony has been difficult to listen to and at one point she has made sure she was not present.
The most heart rending moment of the trial came when a former Edwards' aide was about to testify about a confrontation between a distraught Elizabeth Edwards and her wayward husband. Before it began, Cate Edwards left her seat wiping her eyes as her father called after her, "Cate, Cate."
The witness went on to describe Elizabeth Edwards collapsing on an airport tarmac and then tearing off her blouse and bra while yelling at her husband, "You don't see me any more."
"There are these moments of just deep anguishing pain that have been relived in that courtroom and you know we saw the day of that airport scene being replayed, that it was too much for Cate and she left in tears to escape the details of how badly her mother ached," Westfall said.
Westfall said that Cate Edwards' testimony will be a tightrope for her because she does not want to hurt either parent.
"You see in the testimony that defense lawyers are eliciting a portrait of Elizabeth that focuses on her temper, her volcanic rages, her uncontrolled breakdowns and I think that serves the defense strategy in saying that John's biggest interest was in hiding this from Elizabeth because he feared the affect on her.
"It is a tricky line for Cate to walk in participating in that strategy because she doesn't want her mother remembered as anything but an innocent victim here," Westfall said.
- Politics & Government
- Crime & Justice
- John Edwards
- Cate Edwards
- Elizabeth Edwards