John Edwards gambles on N.C. jury to avoid prison

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — As a young personal-injury lawyer in North Carolina, John Edwards earned a reputation for turning down multimillion-dollar settlement offers on bets that jurors would award his clients more money at the end of a trial.

“The twelve souls who spend full days, full weeks, or sometimes long months sitting only a few feet from you get to know you almost as well as you know yourself,” Mr. Edwards wrote in “Four Trials,” his 2003 autobiography. “They take in every movement, fact, word, hesitation, and glance. My faith in the wisdom of ordinary people took root in the mill towns of my youth. But the juries of my adulthood deepened that faith.”

Now Mr. Edwards, a former U.S. senator and two-time Democratic presidential candidate, is making the biggest courtroom gamble of his life — that a jury will clear him of alleged campaign finance violations and keep him from being sent to prison.

Jury selection in Mr. Edwards’ criminal trial is set to begin Thursday in the Middle District of North Carolina. The sprawling 24-county federal judicial district includes the town where he grew up, Robbins, as well as dozens of other small communities where old textile mills now sit idle but evangelical churches are routinely full.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles, who was appointed in 2010 by President Obama, will preside. She said she expects the proceedings to last about six weeks.

Mr. Edwards, who declined an interview request through his lawyers, was indicted by a federal grand jury last year on six felony and misdemeanor counts related to nearly $1 million secretly provided by wealthy campaign donors to help hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House in 2008. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and as much as $1.5 million in fines.

Before his indictment, Mr. Edwards rejected a potential plea agreement with federal prosecutors that would have allowed him to serve as little as six months and keep his law license, according to two people with direct knowledge of the offer.

More than a year after his wife, Elizabeth, died of cancer, Edwards is now a single parent of two children, ages 13 and 11, who live with their father at the family’s gated estate outside Chapel Hill. Eldest daughter Cate Edwards, 30, is a lawyer who married last year.

A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s law school, Mr. Edwards made his fortune handling medical malpractice and corporate negligence cases before turning to politics following the death of his 16-year-old son, Wade, in a 1996 auto accident. Mr. Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998 and was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004. His law license has been listed as inactive for more than a decade.

For his part, Mr. Edwards has said he is looking forward to getting back in front of a jury, even though he’ll be the one at the defense table.

“After all these years, I finally get my day in court, and people get to hear my side of this and what actually happened,” Mr. Edwards said on the steps of the federal courthouse in Greensboro following a pretrial hearing in October. “And what I know with complete and absolute certainty is I didn’t violate campaign laws and I never for a second believed I was violating campaign laws.”

Regardless of the outcome, the coming trial in U.S.A. v. Johnny Reid Edwards is sure to set legal precedents for what constitutes a campaign donation under federal law.

A key issue will be whether Mr. 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 already had given Mr. Edwards’ campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by federal law.

Mr. Edwards denies having known about the money, which paid for private jets, luxury hotels and Ms. 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.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors declined to comment about likely trial issues. But hundreds of pages of pre-trial motions and hours of oral arguments in recent months offer insights into their likely strategies.

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