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Stage is set for Edwards trial in North Carolina


This news story was published on April 23, 2012.
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By Anne Blythe, McClatchy Newspapers –

RALEIGH, N.C. — In the springtime in ancient Greece, thousands would fill an Athens theater to watch the playwrights’ newest tragedies.

On Monday, a modern tragedy – replete with many elements of the Athenian dramas – will take center stage in a federal courtroom in Greensboro.

John Edwards, the former Democratic U.S. senator, vice presidential nominee and presidential candidate whose descent from the heights of politics was faster and deeper than his quick ascent, is at the center of a criminal trial that will follow a story of sex, political conniving, vast wealth and personal betrayals.

The expected six weeks of testimony will mix the dry aspects of federal election law and the dramatic flaws of human character.

(PHOTO: Former U.S. Senator John Edwards arrives at the Federal Courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 12, 2012, for the first day of jury selection in his trial on charges of campaign finance violations during his run for president.)

Sixteen jurors will hear the case, a jury of 12 and four alternates. They have been cautioned by Judge Catherine Eagles that the trial is not about whether Edwards was a good husband or politician. “This is a case about whether Mr. Edwards violated campaign law,” she told them this month.

Defense attorneys for Edwards contend that prosecutors are trying a novel theory that tests the reach and sweep of campaign finance law.

At issue is whether more than $900,000 that two wealthy Edwards supporters provided for Rielle Hunter’s living expenses were campaign contributions. If the jurors think they were, the next test will be whether Edwards knew about the payments, knew they should be considered campaign money, and conspired to obtain them and hide them from the public. The six-count indictment also accuses Edwards of making false statements to investigators.

Edwards had an extramarital affair with Hunter, his campaign videographer, while his wife, Elizabeth, was battling the cancer that eventually claimed her life. Edwards, 58, denied the affair initially, then later denied being the father of Frances Quinn, the daughter born out of the affair.

Though the affair and pregnancy are at the core of the allegations, the defense team has given notice in hundreds of pages of court filings that it hopes to keep the focus on the drier details of law and not the salacious side of the scandal.

Edwards is a skilled trial lawyer who won millions of dollars for his clients. He drew crowds to his closing arguments and made a big splash after winning a $25 million jury award in 1996 – then the largest in the state – for a 3-year-old girl injured by a defective pool drain.

Throughout the many hearings in his case, Edwards has been at the table with his lawyers, often talking with them before and after any comments they make to the judge. Since the federal investigation, he has swapped attorneys onto and off his defense team.

Andrew Young, a former Edwards campaign aide, is expected to be a key prosecution witness. He, has been offered immunity for his testimony. Young once claimed to be the father of Hunter’s daughter. and then told a different story in his book “The Politician,” so he could have credibility issues. Defense attorneys have sought his financial records and any details of book or movie deals as they attempt to discredit him.

Hunter, if called to testify at the trial of the father of her only child, it wouldl be the first time she gives a full account of the relationship. She would likely be asked to describe her cross-country odyssey with Andrew Young and his wife, Cheri, as they tried to outrun National Enquirer reporters. According to court documents, Hunter has also been offered immunity for her testimony.

Hunter and Edwards live about 120 miles apart. He lives just outside Chapel Hill and she’s in Charlotte. Edwards visits Frances Quinn, but the state of the relationship between the 4-year-old’s parents is unclear.

Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, 101, a philanthropist and horticulturalist, is on lists of potential witnesses. It is questionable that she will be called to Greensboro to testify, but technology could make it possible for jurors to see her questioned in her Virginia home. Evidence sheets show that prosecutors plan to introduce many handwritten notes from Mellon and emails from Edwards staffers urging their boss to call his wealthy supporter after she had a fall.

Mellon, according to the indictment, provided more than $725,000 over eight months beginning in May 2007 for Hunter’s living expenses through Bryan Huffman, an interior decorator in western North Carolina.

Though the judge rejected earlier efforts by the defense team to dismiss the prosecution’s case against Edwards, she delayed ruling on some key defense motions. She may rule after the government presents it case.

Edwards has had winning ways standing before civil juries, but would he be convincing if he speaks to jurors as a defendant on the stand? He has already taken a risk by turning down a plea bargain and putting his future in a jury’s hands. Whether he goes to the stand will depend on how he sizes up the jury and whether he thinks the trial is going for or against him.

Though cancer killed Elizabeth Edwards in December 2010, her memory will be very much alive in the courtroom. Prosecutors plan to introduce messages from her as they try to make their case to jurors. What Elizabeth Edwards knew about the affair and pregnancy, and when, could be key to how the trial turns.

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