For Edwards trial, a primer on who and what to watch

ablythe@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2012 

  • John Edwards - the accused

    Andrew Young - the aide who betrayed him

    Rielle Hunter - the paramour at the crux of the case

    Wendy Button - the former speechwriter and columnist who could corroborate Andrew Young’s story

    George Holding - the federal prosecutor who pursued the charges and is now running for office himself

    Cate Edwards - the daughter who could testify on her father’s behalf.

    Elizabeth Edwards - the wife who died of cancer

    Catherine Eagles - the federal judge

    Abbe Lowell - the chief defense lawyer

    David Harbach - the federal prosecutor

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 wood-paneled courtroom in the Greensboro federal courthouse.

John Edwards, the former Democratic U.S. senator 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 projected six weeks of testimony will mix the dry aspects of federal election law and the dramatic flaws of human character.

A LANDMARK CASE

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 earlier this month.

Defense attorneys for Edwards contend 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 contributions, 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.

“It would be disingenuous to say this case doesn’t have a novel aspect to it,” said Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor who has been attending trial hearings. “In some ways, it is a little bit unusual in the nature of the expenses themselves – here it is to allegedly to support a mistress.”

EDWARDS' CHARACTER ON TRIAL?

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.

DEFENDANT, OR DEFENDER?

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 terribly injured by a defective pool drain.

Throughout the many hearings, 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.

Attorneys say it can be difficult to represent a fellow lawyer, particularly when the lawyer being represented has conflicting ideas for his defense.

Edwards has hired several to handle the job: Abbe Lowell, a lawyer from Washington, D.C.; Alan Duncan, a Greensboro lawyer who worked in the same firm as Eagles early in their careers; and Alison Van Laningham, also of Greensboro. The Greensboro lawyers previously represented Hunter in her dispute over ownership of a purported sex tape.

ANDREW YOUNG TESTIFIES

The former campaign aide is expected to be a key witness for prosecutors. He, too, 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 “The Politician,” his tell-all book, 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.

WAITING FOR RIELLE

Hunter, who gained celebrity status from her affair with Edwards, has been in GQ and appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But if called to testify at the trial of the father of her only child, it will be the first time she gives a full account of the relationship. She will 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 been offered immunity by prosecutors for her testimony.

Though tabloids have reported an on-again, off-again, on-again relationship between Hunter and Edwards, the two live about 120 miles apart. He’s 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.

BUNNY'S MONEY

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 during an 8-month period beginning in May 2007 for Hunter’s living expenses through Bryan Huffman, an interior decorator in western North Carolina.

WILL THE CHARGES STAND?

Though Eagles 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. Rulings for the defense could undercut the government’s case.

WILL EDWARDS TESTIFY?

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.

ELIZABETH EDWARDS' PRESENCE

Though cancer claimed the life of 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.

REDEMPTION OR PRISON?

A recent survey done by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh, found that though the former senator and presidential candidate remains highly unpopular in North Carolina, 56 percent of voters believe his prosecution is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

In some respects, Edwards’ public image can’t go much lower. It’s possible that a perception of government overreach and a full airing of what happened could leave him acquitted and free to move beyond the harsh public glare.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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