Nearly a quarter of the potential jurors in the criminal trial of former senator John Edwards were dismissed after the judge determined that many of them had tracked the case too closely and may have had difficulty weighing the evidence fairly.
U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles on Monday excused 47 people out of a pool of 185 who had filled out jury questionnaires last week. Most of those dismissed had acknowledged following media reports about Edwards’ extra-marital affair and indicated they had already formed opinions on his guilt or innocence.
Jury selection will continue on Tuesday as about 50 of the remaining jurors will be questioned in open court by the judge and attorneys for both sides. The trial is set to open next Monday with twelve jurors and four alternates ultimately selected to hear the evidence and determine Edwards’ fate.
Edwards was charged last June in a six-count indictment alleging his complicity in a conspiracy to solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars from two wealthy donors to support and seclude Edwards’ pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter. Crucially, the indictment alleges the money was used “for the purposes of influencing an election” for federal office, specifically as a means of protecting and advancing Edwards’ candidacy for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president.
For Edwards’ defense team, finding the right mix of jurors in such a high-profile case involving an immensely unpopular defendant is critical and could prove difficult.
“I think that does pose a significant problem for the defense,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Edwards. “Everybody in America hates John Edwards. He was cheating on his cancer stricken wife. You really can’t get lower than that. But by the same token, I think Americans can judge facts impartially and they can look at the situation and say, ‘yes, having an affair and doing what he did is terrible, but that doesn’t make it a crime.’”
Edwards pleaded not guilty last June to all of the charges. His defense team has characterized the money received from the donors as gifts not subject to election finance laws. There are no allegations in the indictment that any of that money passed through Edwards’ presidential campaign coffers.
Also on Monday, Edwards’ defense team scored an important pre-trial victory when the judge approved a broad defense subpoena that seeks detailed financial records of the government’s key witness, Andrew Young.
Once a close aide to Edwards, Young handled the money dedicated to the cover-up of the candidate’s affair and even falsely claimed paternity of Edwards’ child with Hunter. Young recanted the paternity claim in 2010 and published a book about the scandal that painted a decidedly unflattering portrait of his former boss.
The defense will now gain access to tax returns and details on Young’s income and assets dating back to 2006. The defense team is also pursuing any records of money or gifts Young and his wife, Cheri, may have received from Fred Baron and Bunny Mellon, the two donors who allegedly funneled more than $900,000 into the cover-up of Edwards’ affair.
In pre-trial motions over the past several months, Edwards’ defense team has strongly signaled its intent to aggressively attack Young as a biased witness with a profit motive and a vendetta against his former boss. They have noted in court filings that the Youngs controlled the money, mingled it with their own assets, and even used some of it to help build their “dream home” on a wooded hilltop overlooking Chapel Hill.
Young’s book, “The Politician,” was a hot-seller in 2010, and the Youngs have sold the movie rights to their story to Oscar-winning “The Social Network” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Edwards’ subpoena seeks all financial documents related to the book and movie deals.
In the book — and in subsequent interviews with ABC News — Young has acknowledged that he and his wife spent some of the money on themselves, but claimed it was all done in furtherance of the cover-up – with the aim of keeping Edwards’ political future viable.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.