By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - A North Carolina jury broke from its third day of deliberations after asking on Tuesday for a closer look at evidence offered to show that former U.S. Senator John Edwards committed a crime as he sought to hide his affair during his 2008 White House run.
Jurors must decide if more than $900,000 funneled by two Edwards supporters to his then-pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, and his aide, Andrew Young, qualified as campaign contributions that are subject to limits and reporting requirements.
Neither of the two supporters, 101-year-old heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and the late lawyer Fred Baron, were able to testify at Edwards' federal trial, which is now in its fifth week in the state he once represented in the Senate.
Just as they had during the prior two days of deliberations, jurors on Tuesday wanted to examine government evidence that might shed light on Mellon's motivation for giving the money.
The latest requested exhibits were two letters written by Mellon's attorney, Alex Forger, in the months before Edwards announced his bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Prosecutors say Edwards, 58, sought money from Mellon and Baron as part of a cover-up plot to prevent voters from finding out about Hunter and her pregnancy with Edwards' child during the campaign.
But the defense argued that the two supporters gave private gifts - not political contributions - to keep the affair and pregnancy a secret from Edwards' cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth.
Given the lack of direct testimony from Mellon, jurors appear to be trying to glean her intent from the evidence offered at trial, said Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor.
"I'm guessing that they're trying to trap the universe of hard evidence," he said.
Deliberations will resume on Wednesday in Greensboro, where media have swarmed the federal courthouse awaiting the outcome of a case that legal experts say could broaden the definition of campaign contributions.
Jurors must reach a unanimous verdict to convict Edwards of charges that include conspiring to solicit the money, receiving more than the $2,300 allowed from any one donor, and failing to report the payments as contributions.
Each of the six felony counts he faces carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Jackie Frank; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)