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John Edwards 'not guilty' on one count; mistrial declared on remaining charges

Updated at 4:34 p.m. ET -- Capping a day of dramatic turnarounds, the jury in the campaign finance trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards found him not guilty on Thursday on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions and said it was deadlocked on the remaining five charges.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles then declared a mistrial on the remaining charges. It was not immediately clear if prosecutors intend to seek a retrial on those charges.

In a statement outside the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., Edwards acknowledged that he had behaved poorly, but said he had not acted illegally.

Read Thursday's court transcript

“I want to make sure that everyone hears from me … that while I don’t believe I did anything illegal,  I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong and there is no one else responsible for my sins,” said Edwards, who did not testify at the trial and took no questions.

The count on which the jury reached a "not guilty" verdict involved contributions from Edwards' contributor Rachel "Bunny" Mellon.

NBC station WNCN of Raleigh, N.C., reported that when the decision came, Edwards closed his eyes, rubbed his face and smiled at his daughter, Cate. He then hugged his daughter and his elderly parents while whispering to them, "I told you this would be OK," WCNC reported. Earlier, the jury of eight men and four women told Eagles that it had reached a verdict on all six felony accounts against Edwards. But after the jury returned to the courtroom, the foreperson stated that jurors had reached a unanimous decision on only one count. Eagles then sent them back to the jury room to resume deliberations.

The charges against Edwards, 58, arose while he was in the midst of the 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and were focused on about $1 million in donations from two wealthy donors, Fred Baron and Mellon, a billionnaire banking heiress. The money was used to support and hide Edwards' pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter.

Prosecutors argued that the money amounted to illegal and unreported campaign contributions at a time when federal donations were capped at $2,300; the defense said the money was a "gift" intended to allow Edwards to hide the affair from his ailing wife, Elizabeth, and the public. Elizabeth Edwards, who had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, separated from John Edwards in early 2010 and died later that year.

If found guilty of all six counts, Edwards could have faced up to 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.  Each individual count carries a maximum sentence of 5 years and a fine of up to $250,000.

Attorneys for Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina and the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, and prosecutors alike painted him as a liar and a bad husband. Where they differed was whether the scheme to hide his affair amounted to a crime.

The jurors were charged with deciding if Edwards "knowingly and willfully" violated a 1971 campaign finance law by orchestrating the scheme to support and hide Hunter.

Prosecutors alleged in their closing arguments that Edwards manipulated the campaign finance system to conceal the affair with Hunter, a videographer on his 2008 presidential campaign staff.

He "clearly knew the law and decided to violate it in order to salvage his campaign," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon said, accusing Edwards of cynically seeking to "keep her quiet" until the election was over "and his wife (had) passed away."

Lead defense attorney Abbe Lowell admitted in his closing arguments that Edwards had committed many "moral wrongs," but he insisted that none of the misdeeds was "a legal one."

"John's conduct is shameful, but it's human," Lowell told the jury.

Letters and other notes from Mellon appeared to be crucial to the jurors' deliberations — from their first day of discussions, they requested a stream of exhibits related to the nearly $750,000 she contributed.

Mellon, who is 101 years old, didn't testify during the trial, but her attorney and financial adviser, Alex Forger, offered extensive testimony that Mellon knew that her donations were intended to fund the "Hunter problem" and weren't given as campaign contributions.

A possible turning point came in mid-May, when Judge Eagles barred most of the defense's planned testimony from current and former members of the Federal Election Commission about a federal audit that concluded that the money didn't amount to campaign contributions subject to federal regulation.

Eagles ruled that evidence about the FEC audit was inadmissible because it couldn't be determined exactly what the commission knew or was told at the time.

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