|Trial Set to Start for Ex-VP Nominee . |
By VALERIE BAUERLEIN
Jury selection in the long-delayed trial of former Sen. John Edwards is expected to begin Thursday in a federal court in Greensboro, N.C., a proceeding that could determine whether the onetime Democratic star will be exonerated or potentially face jail time on charges of misusing campaign funds.
The trial has been delayed for six months, partly due to the wedding of Mr. Edwards's eldest daughter last fall and the treatment of his heart condition this past winter.
Mr. Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee and a 2008 presidential contender, was indicted last June on six felony and misdemeanor counts, including making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. Mr. Edwards is accused of violating campaign-finance laws during his 2008 presidential campaign by accepting more than $900,000 from two donors, in part to conceal an extramarital affair with his campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, and her resulting pregnancy. Mr. Edwards, who has denied the charges, could face five years in prison and hefty fines, if convicted.
Opening statements are tentatively scheduled for April 23, if a jury has been selected. The trial is expected to take six weeks and include testimony from Ms. Hunter and from Andrew Young, a former aide whom Mr. Edwards initially named as the father of Ms. Hunter's child. It's not clear who else will testify; the court has not released a full list of witnesses. The affair and pregnancy were closely held secrets, so there are a relatively small number of people who can give first-hand accounts.
If convicted, Mr. Edwards will have had an unusually steep fall from grace. The case could also set a precedent in the way campaign-finance laws are enforced. The Justice Department's corruption unit is using an aggressive interpretation of the laws to make the case against Mr. Edwards. Payments from political supporters to a third party may be improper but don't typically lead to a criminal indictment against a candidate, legal experts say.
"Whether you agree with the government's case or not, it is certainly unprecedented," said Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer and a 2008 Democratic candidate for North Carolina lieutenant governor who is writing a blog about the trial. "It seems particularly anachronistic in our current no-holds-barred, post-Citizens United world," he said, citing the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, which struck down longstanding limits on election expenditures.
Mr. Edwards, a 58-year-old millionaire trial lawyer, has been very involved in planning his defense strategy, according to people close to the case. But while renowned for his relaxed charm in front of a jury, Mr. Edwards might not testify in his own defense. He is expected to decide whether to testify based on his read of how his case is playing out for the jury.
Mr. Edwards declined to be interviewed. His lead attorney, Abbe Lowell, said, "Mr. Edwards has been waiting for some time and is looking forward to his day in court. So much has been said about his life and his case. The time has come for the evidence."
District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles has said she would consider allowing former FEC officials to testify as experts for Mr. Edwards, a move the prosecution had opposed.
Jury selection is complicated by Mr. Edwards's unpopularity in his home state. President George W. Bush carried North Carolina in 2004 despite Mr. Edwards being Sen. John Kerry's running mate. After the indictment, 81% of North Carolinians had an unfavorable impression of Mr. Edwards, according to a June 2011 poll by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning research group.
Legal experts say the Edwards team will look for jurors who may disapprove of Mr. Edwards's actions but still realize that doesn't mean he broke the law.
Mr. Edwards is no longer represented by the five lawyers who were by his side at his indictment. Wade Smith, a longtime friend and well-known Raleigh trial lawyer, stepped aside late last year, citing a potential conflict if he is called to testify. Former White House counsel Greg Craig also left last fall. Mr. Craig was involved in plea discussions with the Obama administration, though those talks broke down over Mr. Edwards's unwillingness to serve jail time, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Mr. Edwards is now represented by a team led by Mr. Lowell, who represented lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mr. Edwards is also represented by two lawyers who formerly represented Ms. Hunter.
The donors who made the payments in question are unable to testify—philanthropist Bunny Mellon is 101 years old and too frail to travel, and Fred Baron, a prominent Democratic donor, died in 2008. Lisa Blue Baron, Mr. Baron's widow, appeared before the grand jury considering the Edwards case last year, but it is not clear whether she will testify. Her former attorney is Mr. Lowell, now representing Mr. Edwards.
On Tuesday, the Federal Election Commission said that Mr. Edwards's campaign has recently repaid $2.1 million in disputed campaign matching funds. The FEC had said the funds were improperly paid after Mr. Edwards suspended his campaign.