RALEIGH, N.C. — 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," 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 the 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 for 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 Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles, who was appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama, will preside. She said she expects the proceedings to last about six weeks.
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, 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 law school, John 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. 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, 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," 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 USA 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 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.
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.
Abbe Lowell, Edwards' lead lawyer, contends that even had Edwards known about the secret payments, his actions wouldn't amount to a crime under federal law because his motivation was keeping his wife from learning of the affair, not influencing the outcome of an election. Lowell has said in court that the government's case relies on flawed legal reasoning, that the grand jury process was tainted and that the Republican federal prosecutor who led the investigation, now-congressional candidate George Holding, was motivated by partisanship.
Lowell has derided what he calls the government's "crazy" interpretation of federal law whereby money that was never handled by the candidate nor deposited in a campaign account is being defined as campaign contributions.
The Federal Election Commission reviewed Edwards' case and declined to seek charges or issue a fine. The defense is likely to call two former FEC commissioners as expert witnesses.
Edwards' legal position is also supported in a court brief filed by the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a campaign finance watchdog group.
"In the United States, we don't prosecute people for being loathsome, we prosecute them for violating the law," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said this week. "The real reason for these payments is obvious: To prevent Mr. Edwards' cancer-stricken wife from finding out about the affair. This makes him despicable, but not a criminal."
Much of the money at issue was funneled to Andrew Young, a former campaign aide once so close to Edwards that Andrews initially claimed paternity of his boss' illegitimate child. Young and his wife invited the pregnant Hunter to live in their home near Chapel Hill and later embarked with her on a cross-country odyssey as they sought to elude tabloid reporters trying to expose the candidate's extramarital affair.
Young later fell out with Edwards and wrote an unflattering tell-all book, "The Politician." Young and Hunter recently ended a two-year legal battle over ownership of a sex tape the mistress recorded with Edwards during the campaign, agreeing to a settlement that dictates that copies of the video will be destroyed.
Young is expected to be a witness for the prosecution, while the defense is likely to call Hunter to testify. Two of the lawyers who represented Hunter in her civil suit against the former aide joined Edwards' legal team last month. After years of adamant public denials, Edwards acknowledged paternity of Hunter's daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, in 2010. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.
It has not yet been decided whether Edwards, who was once known for his ability to charm jurors, will testify in his own defense.
But if he does take the witness stand, the case could hinge on which admitted liar the jury chooses to believe — Edwards, who once appeared on national television to deny having an affair with Hunter and fathering her child, or Young, who had signed a sworn affidavit claiming the baby was his.
"Juries seek the truth, and even as a (law) clerk I learned that neither silver-tongued cunning nor hapless bungling will find it for them," Edwards wrote in "Four Trials." ''So the best lawyer must be honest and in a way plain in answering any doubts or confusions, and you must know the facts — all of them — for otherwise the jury will lose faith in you. As it should."
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck