RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Jury selection begins today in a trial that brings back to the news one of the more stunning falls in American politics. Just four years ago, John Edwards, who was running for president - a leading candidate in the Democratic primary race, with a passionate following. Now, he's a defendant in a North Carolina court, fighting campaign finance charges that could see him spend years in prison. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Johnny Reid Edwards rose to the top of the Democratic political elite as a blond-haired, blue-eyed son of a mill worker made good. But that wholesome image curdled after people found out Edwards had an affair, and fathered a baby with his mistress, while his late wife was fighting cancer.
MELANIE SLOAN: John Edwards is a despicable and loathsome human being, but that doesn't also make him a criminal.
JOHNSON: Says Melanie Sloan of the nonprofit group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She's no fan of Edwards, but she thinks the Justice Department's criminal case against him is wrong.
Prosecutors accuse Edwards of accepting, and failing to report, nearly a million dollars that two old friends and campaign donors funneled through intermediaries to support a lavish lifestyle for his mistress.
New York University law professor Richard Pildes is shaking his head.
RICHARD PILDES: No campaign finance lawyer can tell you they've seen any case in which the government comes anywhere close to the extremely aggressive use they're making here of the idea of a campaign contribution.
JOHNSON: The money came from people who'd long supported Edwards, and it didn't cover any specific campaign expense. Pildes says under this new Justice Department theory, almost anything could be considered a contribution under the law. And there's one more fear, Pildes says.
PILDES: We don't normally criminalize activity unless the criminal law makes it pretty clear that the actions are a crime.
JOHNSON: In his own statements last June, outside a North Carolina courthouse where he pleaded not guilty, John Edwards signaled that would be a core of his defense.
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JOHN EDWARDS: There's no question that I've done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong. But I did not break the law and I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.
JOHNSON: Justice Department prosecutors will try to poke a hole in that defense by presenting testimony from people who used to be in Edwards' inner circle. First, there's Andrew Young, who agreed to tell people he was the baby's father and accepted checks from a wealthy donor, hidden in boxes of chocolate. Eventually, Young renounced Edwards and wrote a tell-all book about him. Young's credibility will be a huge issue in the trial.
Then there's a former speechwriter for Edwards who wanted him to issue a public statement coming clean about the affair and the money he was getting from friends to support his mistress. The criminal charges say Edwards told the speechwriter not to mention that money for legal and practical reasons, which could demonstrate what the law calls guilty knowledge.
Sloan, of the nonprofit group, says the Justice Department's best chance for a conviction may be Edwards' deep unpopularity, which explains why prosecutors wanted a jury, not a judge, to hear the case.
SLOAN: By proving to a jury that Mr. Edwards is loathsome, they are hopeful that they will, in fact, get a conviction. And they know that that would've been a much riskier strategy with a judge.
JOHNSON: The trial's expected to last about six weeks.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.