Analysis: After sensational start to John Edwards trial, an uphill push for prosecutors

Jurors in the federal criminal trial of John Edwards were clearly not given a primer on the intricacies of the campaign finance laws he is accused of violating. Instead, they listened to Andrew Young, the former presidential candidate’s once-trusted aide, describe how Edwards called his mistress a “crazy slut,” used a secret “Bat phone” to call her and accepted money from rich friends to pay her expenses.

Although Young’s salacious testimony seemed to keep jurors awake, he may not have been as strong a lead witness as the prosecution had hoped. Having laid out the detailed narrative of the tawdry affair in their opening week, prosecutors face a tough road proving that Edwards accepted illegal campaign contributions to conceal his affair to save his 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I’m not sure that the prosecution accomplished very much … in terms of showing that Edwards had knowledge of the intricacies of the law and that he intended to break it,” said Jerry H. Goldfeder, a New York campaign finance lawyer who also teaches election law. “This case is not about sex. It’s not about lying. … It’s about what (Edwards) knew and what were his intentions.”

Under cross-examination, the defense sought to portray Young as an opportunist who personally profited from the ex-senator’s rise and fall.

Even with Edwards’ former mistress Rielle Hunter is on the witness list, Young could be the most important witness — unless Edwards takes the stand — and the aide’s credibility with jurors will be crucial as the trial unfolds.

“He’s the foundation of the prosecution’s house. Take him away, and it starts to fall apart,” said Steve Friedland, an Elon University law professor who attended the trial in Greensboro, N.C.

Edwards is charged with six criminal counts of federal campaign finance violations. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted.

The government must prove that Edwards knowingly accepted nearly $1 million from wealthy benefactors to hide his mistress and prevent his campaign from failing — making the money an illegal presidential campaign donation beyond the $2,300 individual limit.

The defense contends the money provided by Edwards benefactors Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron were not political donations, but personal gifts to help a friend hide the affair from his wife. Elizabeth Edwards died in December 2010 from breast cancer.

Experts suggest that prosecutors made Young their lead witness to captivate the jury and tell the story from the broadest perspective. Although the heart of the case is about campaign finance law, the government chose to show last week that Edwards’ alleged offenses were inextricably entwined in a high-pressure tale of sex, lies and betrayal in the throes of a presidential campaign.

To show Edwards’ desperation, Young testified that he agreed to his boss’ request and publicly claimed to be the father of Hunter’s child, protecting Edwards’ image as a family man.

Edwards admitted to the affair in August 2008, and in January 2010 said he was the father of Hunter’s daughter.

“The government gets to tell its story the way it wants to … to show the jury why they should be mad enough at Edwards to hold him criminally liable and send him to jail,” said Michael Rich, an Elon University School of Law professor who has attended the trial.

Young, however, was impeached in cross-examination.

He admitted to using money from the contributors to help build a $1.5-million North Carolina home for himself and his family, and he and publicized Edwards’ exploits in a tell-all book that he also sold for movie rights. The defense also sought to highlight inconsistencies between Young’s testimony and his writings, interviews and grand jury testimony.

Every inconsistency that the defense brought out, Friedland said, “added to a pile building toward reasonable doubt. Whether the jury sees this pile as substantial and sufficient remains an open question.”

Now prosecutors must rely on other witnesses to back up Young’s testimony. Young’s wife, Cheri, began testifying Friday afternoon.

The defense, aiming to move beyond the affair and delve into campaign finance law, is seeking to put two former members of the Federal Elections Commission on the stand to support its claims that the payments were gifts, not campaign contributions. But the prosecution has opposed this testimony, saying it’s up to the judge to advise the jury on the law.

“A lot will boil down to the judge’s decision about whether to permit Edwards’ experts to testify,” Rich said. Such testimony will likely help Edwards by emphasizing the complexities of the law.

Yet much hinges on Young’s testimony.

Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who heads the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, suggested that the prosecution’s goal is for the jury to “hate John Edwards so much they’ll convict him.”

It may well be that “jurors hate everybody here,” she said. “But you’re not going convict anyone on Andrew Young’s testimony alone. They’re going to have to have a lot more.”

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