Jury selection begins in John Edwards trial

Former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Edwards arrives outside federal court in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, April 12, 2012. (Gerry Broome)

April 18, 2012 2:14:31 PM PDT
The trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards got underway with jury selection Thursday after years of investigation, denials, and delays.

Edwards entered a Greensboro federal courtroom to face six criminal counts. He is accused of using about $1 million in undisclosed payments from campaign donors to cover up an affair during his 2008 White House bid. He has pleaded not guilty.

Edwards sat at the defense table as about 100 potential jurors filed into the Greensboro federal courtroom. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles asked Edwards to stand and face them. He smiled and nodded as the judge introduced him.

The 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee had an affair with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, eventually fathering a child. Prosecutors contend that Edwards used money from donors far in excess of legal campaign limits to keep the dalliance under wraps.

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

Much of the undisclosed money was funneled to Andrew Young, a close aide to Edwards who left the campaign and falsely claimed paternity of the senator's illegitimate child. Young and his wife invited the pregnant Hunter to live in their home near Chapel Hill and later travelled with her as tabloid reporters sought to expose the candidate's extramarital affair.

Young is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution. Hunter may testify as part of Edwards' defense.

"This is not a case about whether Mr. Edwards was a good husband or politician," the Judge Eagles said from the bench Thursday. "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 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 mischaracterize the law or how a courtroom operates.

"You can watch Law & Order, Judge Judy, John Grisham; put it out of your mind," Eagles 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 jurors is scheduled to come in the afternoon to follow the same process.

By next week, the large jury pool is to be winnowed down to 12 jurors and at least four alternate jurors expected to attend each day of the proceedings. Opening arguments are scheduled to begin April 22.

The trial is expected to last six weeks, though the judge warned it could go even longer.

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

A key issue at the trial will be whether Edwards knew about the payments made on his behalf by his national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and campaign donor Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, an heiress and socialite who is now 101 years old. Both had already given Edwards' campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by federal law.

Edwards denies having known about the money, which paid for private jets, luxury hotels, and Hunter's medical care. Prosecutors will seek 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.

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