Moments after a federal judge rejected John Edwards’ efforts to dismiss the government’s criminal case against him, the former Senator and one-time rising star of Democratic politics stood outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, and pronounced that he is ready to fight.
“What’s important now is that I now get my day in court,” Edwards proclaimed that day last October. “After all these years — I finally get my day in court.”
Edwards, 58, an attorney who made his name and built his fortune arguing malpractice cases in North Carolina courtrooms, is now placing his future and his freedom in the hands of a jury of his peers.
“And what I know with complete and absolute certainty is I didn’t violate campaign law,” Edwards said on the courthouse steps, “and I never for a second believed I was violating campaign laws.”
More than three years after the federal government launched an investigation into the financing of the cover-up of Edwards’ affair with fledgling videographer Rielle Hunter, jury selection is finally set to begin Thursday morning in a case as controversial as it as salacious.
The events that led to this day seem, in many ways, like ancient history. Edwards long ago surrendered any hopes of a political future, his once-promising career draped in the shame of an illicit affair, implausible denials, and revelations of a homemade sex tape.
And it has been over six years since Edwards and Hunter met in a chance encounter outside a New York hotel. The first time they laid eyes on each other, she told him he was “hot,” and a sexual affair quickly ensued. Their daughter born out of the affair, Frances Quinn Hunter, turned four-years old earlier this year having spent the first two years of her life with a father who publicly denied she was his.
The trial itself has already been delayed several times, most recently because Edwards needed treatment for a serious heart condition.
The former North Carolina senator was charged last June in a six-count indictment alleging that he was complicit in an illegal and elaborate conspiracy to seclude and support Hunter during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign for president. If convicted on all charges, he faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and more than a $1 million dollars in fines.
The government contends Edwards, desperate to keep his pregnant mistress out of the public eye as he pursued a bid for the White House, orchestrated a plan to solicit nearly a million dollars from two wealthy supporters — Virginia heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, and the late Fred Baron, a Texas trial attorney who served as Edwards’ national campaign finance chairman.
In announcing the charges, Assistant United States Attorney General Lanny Breuer called Edwards’ actions an affront to the integrity of democratic elections.
“We will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws,” Breuer said in a statement.
In the days before the indictment was issued, Edwards, now a single father after the death of his wife Elizabeth in late 2010, considered but ultimately rejected a plea offer from prosecutors — reportedly because the government insisted Edwards serve at least six months in jail.
Instead, Edwards decided to take his chances in the courtroom. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, and his legal team, led by high-profile attorney Abbe Lowell, has assailed the government’s theory of the case as a “crazy and radical” interpretation of election law. They have characterized the money from Mellon and Baron as gifts that were unrelated to the campaign.
Before his death in late 2008, Baron acknowledged his role in providing funds to Hunter, but said he did it on his own without informing
Edwards. Mellon’s attorney has said she was unaware of how her money was being used.
As the case has moved through the pre-trial stages, Edwards’ defense team has added some allies, including two former Federal Election Commission chairmen who will testify as expert witnesses for the defense. Edwards’ has also received unlikely support from the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which entered a friend of the court brief arguing for dismissal of the charges.
“This is a lousy case,” says CREW executive director Melanie Sloan. “And while John Edwards is a loathsome human being and he behaved despicably, he didn’t engage in criminal action and that is the problem. This case is being brought just because everybody hates John Edwards, not because he broke the law.”
The government’s star witness will be Andrew Young, a former Edwards aide who once falsely claimed paternity of Hunter’s child, but later recanted and made an immunity deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony.
In 2008, Young spent more than nine hours before a grand jury and provided investigators with several thick binders of documentation — emails, voice mails and financial records — which helped build the foundation of the government’s case. He also penned a tell-all book, “The Politician,” which paints a decidedly unflattering portrait of his former boss.
In an interview with 20/20 in January of 2010, Young said Edwards set the cover-up in motion and was well aware of who was providing the money to make it happen.
“He might not have known exactly where we were living,” Young told ABC’s Bob Woodruff, “but he knew about the money, he knew about the methodology and he knew about the sources.”
But Young has significant credibility issues of his own, having been found in contempt of court in a civil case filed against him by Rielle Hunter, in which she alleged Young stole a sex tape and other personal photos from her. The defense in the Edwards’ criminal trial successfully beat back an attempt by the prosecutors to prohibit them from questioning Young about his conduct in the sex-tape case.
The defense has signaled in pre-trial motions that they plan to aggressively attack Young’s credibility — and their success in doing so may well be the most important aspect of the case. The other alleged co-conspirators, Mellon and Baron, were not indicted and will be unavailable to testify. Baron died in 2008, and Mellon is now 101 years old and too frail to travel to court.
Opening arguments in the case are scheduled for April 23, and the case could last as long as six weeks.