Lawyers Portray Edwards Differently in Opening Arguments
Lawyers on each side painted different pictures of former Sen. John Edwards on the first day of his trial at the federal courthouse in Greensboro.
Monday afternoon, the Justice Department put on its star witness: former aide Andrew Young, a man who once claimed to be the father of a child actually born to Edwards and his mistress.
Edwards faces six criminal counts of campaign finance violations. He is accused of accepting but not reporting campaign donations exceeding the $2,300 limit for individual contributions.
If convicted, Edwards in theory could face as much as 30 years in federal prison and be fined up to $1.5 million.
The day began with a startling revelation: U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles said Young had been in contact with three trial witnesses to ask what they were going to say — and had once had a “one-night stand” with one of them.
None were named in court, and Young’s contact may be mentioned to the jury but not the sexual encounter, the judge ruled. That started the first day of the trial, and opening statements followed painting the former senator in vastly different colors.
To prosecutor David Harbach II, Edwards is a manipulator, a politician driven by the desire for power. In his opening statement, Harbach described Edwards as a man felled by his own ambition who illegally used campaign funds from his 2008 presidential bid.
Money from political donors was used to hide his pregnant mistress Rielle Hunter and help him deny fathering their child. As for Hunter, Harbach tagged the one-time campaign videographer as “a loose cannon” whose existence threatened the Edwards campaign.
“He made a choice,” Harbach said, arguing that evidence would show Edwards as a political conniver. Edwards, he said, was protecting his presidential ambitions when he used unreported and illegal contributions to keep his affair and his child from derailing his quest for the White House.
“He made a choice to break the law,” Harbach said. “He made a choice to take hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Harbach’s father watched his son open the Justice Department’s case against the former senator from a crowded pew in the first-floor courtroom. It was so packed with reporters and spectators that long lines formed in the hallway of people hoping to get in. Leaving the room for any reason would mean forfeiting one’s seat and going to the back of the line.
Harbach told the nine men and seven women (12 regular and four alternates) of the jury that Edwards most surely knew — had to know — that nearly $1 million was not just money from friends given to help him try to hide his girlfriend and their baby from his wife.
Clearly it could only have been given for political purposes, contributions intended to protect his campaign and further his presidential ambitions, according to Harbach.
‘Not a Crime’
Hiding his mistress and their child might have been a sin, the defense countered — but it was not a crime.
Opening for Edwards, attorney Allison Van Laningham said the evidence had a different story to tell.
She contended that cash was sought and collected as part of a scheme hatched by Young and his wife, Cheri, to get money.
Most of the cash Young inveigled from Rachel “Bunny” Mellon went into the Youngs’ $1.5 million house, with the rest used to cover Hunter’s medical and other expenses. She urged jurors to follow the money, follow the facts.
“John Edwards is not afraid of the truth,” Van Laningham said. “The truth may be a sin, but it is not a crime. … John Edwards committed many sins, but no crime. … Humiliation is what motivated (him) … to not be humiliated by this affair and for his wife not to be humiliated by it either.”
She stressed four points:
- The route the money took from Mellon and Baron to the Youngs.
- Edwards’ desperate efforts to shield himself, his children and his wife from humiliation.
- That this was a private and not a political matter.
- That Edwards had no criminal intent.
Edwards’ family was there to back him. Edwards’ oldest daughter, Cate Edwards, sat in the front row behind her father with her grandparents, Wallace and Bobbie Edwards of Robbins.
At the noon break in the trial, after hearing Van Laningham’s opening argument, all three were in an upbeat mood and thought things were going well.
Edwards said he hoped — once this was all over — to return to working for the things that had been the centerpiece of two presidential bids: a better chance for working and lower class Americans.
“I hope I can,” he said.
‘Richie Rich Mansion’
The prosecution’s first witness was Young, but most of his afternoon testimony dealt with how he came to work closely with Edwards.
He described Edwards as fascinated with politics and especially with the Kennedy family. He said that early in 2005 — a year after the Kerry/Edwards Democratic ticket lost — Edwards began searching for a viable platform on which to build another campaign for his own presidency.
“No politician has ever been elected without a platform,” he said Edwards told him. “He became enamored of Bobby Kennedy’s fight against poverty.”
The success of his own “Two Americas” speech formed the kernel of this new bid, according to Young’s testimony. He described the beginnings of Edwards’ One America Committee as a leadership political action committee (PAC).
Young told of an early meeting with Mellon and foll0wing a drive lined with North Carolina flags and “Edwards for President” signs to an estate that “looked like a picture postcard” in every direction.
“We came to a house that looked like a Richie Rich mansion,” he said. “There were statues of horses. She came out to greet us. We sat in her living room.”
Mellon described herself as a “best friend” of Jackie Kennedy. Young told her it would take millions of dollars to get Edwards elected. Mellon saw Edwards as “the savior of America,” he said.
He told of returning with the senator to visit her, of early visits to her palatial estate decked out with signs and banners.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make you president of the United States,” he said Mellon told Edwards at their first meeting.
“He was very excited about it — that somebody simply wanted him to become president, but didn’t want anything in return,” Young said.
He described his first worries about Hunter beginning when her luggage was put with Edwards’ — something he said made him suspicious. Later, calling Hunter to confer on the videographer’s next day schedule, he said he heard Edwards cough and say something. He knew Edwards was in Hunter’s hotel room.
The judge called an early halt to the first afternoon’s testimony, noting that members of the jury had had to appear early.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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