State News

Jury selection begins in Edwards' campaign finance trial

Posted April 12, 2012 11:42 a.m. EDT
Updated April 12, 2012 4:13 p.m. EDT

— After years of investigation, denials and delays, jury selection began Thursday for the criminal trial of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

Edwards declined to comment as he arrived at the federal courthouse in Greensboro with his parents and elder daughter, Cate. Inside, he smiled when introduced to a group of about 100 potential jurors.

Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina, faces six criminal counts related to nearly $1 million in secret payments made by two campaign donors to help hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.

"This is not a case about whether Mr. Edwards was a good husband or politician," U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles told the jury pool. "It's about whether he violated campaign finance laws."

Eagles emphasized the potential jurors' important role in the upcoming trial and ordered them not to tell anyone, even their families, that they had been called for the Edwards case.

She made them repeat after her, "The judge told me not to talk about my jury service."

Eagles also advised them to put out of their minds any media coverage they had seen and to ignore any legal dramas they might have seen on television, because such shows may incorrectly characterize the law or how a courtroom operates.

"You can watch Law & Order, Judge Judy, John Grisham; put it out of your mind. We are not here for entertainment," the judge said. "I will tell you what the law is."

The jurors were then ushered to other parts of the courthouse to fill out lengthy written questionnaires. Their answers will be used to begin the selection process. A second batch of 80 potential jurors followed the same process Thursday afternoon.

By next week, the large jury pool will be winnowed to 12 jurors and four alternates, who are expected to attend each day of the proceedings. Opening arguments are scheduled to begin April 23, and the trial is expected to last at least six weeks.

"There are many ways that on TV justice is not realistic," Eagles said. "One of those is that trials occur in an hour."

Most witnesses will be sequestered during the trial.

Eagles also put the crowd of reporters on notice, issuing a four-page order prohibiting them from speaking to any jurors and urging them not to make faces or nod or shake their heads during the trial, because that could distract or influence jurors.

Former Edwards aide Andrew Young is expected to be a key witness for the government. Payments from campaign finance chairman Fred Baron and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon flowed through him to Edwards' mistress, campaign videographer Rielle Hunter.

Young initially claimed Hunter's baby was his, and he sheltered Hunter first in Chatham County and later in California during the early stages of the 2008 campaign. The money paid for private jets, luxury hotels and Hunter's medical care.

Following years of adamant public denials, Edwards acknowledged paternity of Hunter's daughter in 2010.

Prosecutors also have granted Hunter legal immunity for her testimony, as long as she's truthful.

Young has written a tell-all book about the campaign and affair, "The Politician," and Edwards' lawyers have subpoenaed a Cary accountant seeking Young's financial records related to the book and a related movie deal.

The accountant, David Harris, is seeking to quash the subpoena. Eagles said she would address such motions next week.

A key question will be whether Edwards knew about the payments from Baron and Mellon. Both had already given the campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by federal law.

Baron has since died, and the 101-year-old Mellon is considered too fragile to travel to Greensboro to testify.

Edwards denies having known about the money, so prosecutors will try to prove he sought and directed the payments to cover up his affair, protect his public image as a "family man" and keep his presidential hopes viable.

If convicted, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and as much as $1.5 million in fines.