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Prosecutors barred from use of heiress' letter to Edwards

Shortly before his 2011 indictment on corruption charges, John Edwards called the elderly heiress whose money helped hide his pregnant mistress and asked for $3 million more, a witness testified Monday at the trial of the former presidential hopeful.

Librarian Tony L. Willis testified that his boss, 101-year-old Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, sought his help in drafting a letter to the politician. Willis said Mellon told him she received a call from Edwards last year seeking $3 million to help him launch the next phase of his life. Mellon said she wanted to write to explain her reasons for declining his request.

Willis said the letter was never sent to Edwards at the direction of one of Mellon's attorneys, 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 attorneys objected. The judge then sent the jury from the room until she could hear what the witness had to say.

Edwards attorney 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 fundraiser, 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 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.