As Trial Begins, John Edwards' Star Has Faded

fromWUNC

Jury selection began on Thursday for John Edwards, the one-time presidential candidate. Although he was once a rising star in the Democratic Party, Edwards is accused of using campaign money to hide an affair after he fathered a child.

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Eight years ago, John Edwards was a freshman senator seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Today, he was in a Greensboro, North Carolina courtroom. Jury selection began in a trial to determine whether he used campaign money to hide an extra-marital affair.

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: As a rising star in the Democratic Party, John Edwards was accustomed to campaign rallies and adoring supporters.

JOHN EDWARDS: And so, you tell me. Did I make North Carolina proud last night?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

TIBERII: Now his public life consists of quiet courtrooms and virtually none of the esteem he once had. He used to be a celebrity in Chapel Hill. Now a supermarket manager often sees John Edwards shopping alone, late at night.

Edwards rose to fame and power as a successful trial attorney, representing malpractice victims. The millionaire made the transition to politics, beating a Republican incumbent to claim a U.S. Senate seat in 1998. He ran for president in 2004 and 2008, and was the 2004 vice presidential nominee. But that young star of the Democratic Party is no more.

NED BARNETT: I think his ascent was matched by his descent. He might have even gone down further than he went up.

TIBERII: That's Ned Barnett, an editor at the Raleigh News and Observer. He previously covered Edwards, reporting for Reuters.

BARNETT: I think there was almost a universal condemnation of his behavior and a failure to understand it. There were so many elements about it that were wrong, from his wife's illness to his, you know, blatant lying.

TIBERII: Edwards' wife of more than three decades, Elizabeth, died in 2010 from breast cancer. Last summer, he was indicted on campaign finance violations and faces 30 years in prison. This trial has already been delayed twice, the last time for an unspecified heart ailment. Doctors have asked him to stop driving.

While support for Edwards is low, Barnett says public interest remains.

BARNETT: With Edwards there's always an element of intrigue and fascination that doesn't go away. It dissipates a little bit, but it's still there.

TIBERII: Federal prosecutors allege Edwards used more than $900,000 given by two donors to hide an extra-marital affair with Rielle Hunter, and cover up the child he fathered with her. Edwards was indicted in June. His only public comments during these proceedings came after the arraignment.

EDWARDS: There's no question that I have done wrong. And I take full responsibility for having done wrong. But I did not break the law and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law.

TIBERII: Defense attorneys say the charges are unprecedented and will forever change campaign finance law. Kieran Shanahan is a former federal prosecutor who is now a Raleigh attorney specializing in white-collar crime. He has no connection to the Edwards trial.

KIERAN SHANAHAN: I'm not sure it provides a lot of guidance going forward, except that it broadens – if it's sustained – the government's ability to say or suggest, or bring charges for almost any type of expenditure that a candidate may have.

TIBERII: Edwards' attorneys contend the money used to hide his mistress and child was a gift, not a campaign contribution. Jury selection is expected to last several more days and opening statements are scheduled for April 23rd.

Many questions remain. Would John Edwards take a plea agreement? If the trial does proceed, will the former presidential hopeful take the stand in his own defense? If there is a taped deposition from the late Elizabeth Edwards, will it be admissible in court? And perhaps the most relevant question, will the man who quickly climbed the political ladder end up behind bars?

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberii, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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