Willis said the letter was never sent to Edwards at the direction of one of Mellon's lawyers, who reviewed the document before it was to be mailed. It was then well known that Edwards was under investigation by a grand jury in North Carolina.
However, the jury considering Edwards' fate at his criminal trial heard nothing about the financial request, made about three weeks before his June 2011 indictment on six counts related to alleged campaign finance violations. As a prosecutor questioned Willis - librarian of a vast private botanical library on Mellon's 2,100-acre Virginia estate - one of Edwards' defense lawyers objected. The judge then sent the jury from the room until she could hear what the witness had to say.
Edwards' lawyer Alan Duncan argued that the 2011 request was irrelevant to the indictment, which focuses on what prosecutors called about $1 million in secret payments from Mellon and another supporter of his 2008 White House bid. Financial records in evidence show that some of that money was used to help hide Rielle Hunter, Edwards' then-pregnant mistress, from tabloid reporters seeking to expose the Democrat's affair.
Duncan argued that Willis' testimony and the copy of Mellon's letter that he retained could prejudice jurors against Edwards.
A cornerstone of the candidate's defense is that his close aide and campaign fund-raiser, Andrew Young, had been the one who asked Mellon for $725,000 in 2007 to take care of a "personal need" of the former senator, without disclosing precisely how the money would be used. Edwards denies knowing about the so-called Bunny money, much of which Young admits he kept and spent on building a dream home.
After several minutes of deliberation, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles upheld Duncan's objection, barring prosecutors from asking about the letter in front of the jury or entering the document into evidence.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Earlier, Mellon lawyer and money manager Alex D. Forger testified that the heiress believed the $725,000 she sent to Young was intended as a gift to Edwards, not as a campaign contribution. Mellon had already given the maximum allowed $2,300 contribution to Edwards' presidential primary campaign and would give another $6.4 million to a political action committee and other organizations associated with his White House bid.
Forger said Mellon, who first met Edwards' in 2005, wanted to help the politician whom she considered a friend. He said the $6.4 million donated directly to Edwards' groups was "quite small" compared to the heiress' overall net worth.
"I think her primary interest was in John as a person," Forger said. "She in her later years has had few close friends. Her husband had died, her daughter was ill. She took a liking to Senator Edwards. Whatever was of interest to him, she would support."