Share this article

print logo

Edwards trial weds prurient drama with campaign-finance law

John Edwards takes mincing, careful steps now, not the long strides of the triumphant. No one clears a path for him anymore. When the federal court jury is excused for breaks, the former senator and erstwhile presidential candidate finds his own route out of a courtroom where his shame is on display.

Edwards seeks refuge from a trial at war with itself, a legal contest with a split personality.

One trial is a splashy, prurient drama, a tale of lust, deception and boundless ambition; the other is a trial anesthetized by the minutiae of campaign-finance law, a snoozer about itemized receipts and the "allocation of primary expenditures" for a presidential candidate.

In three weeks of testimony, prosecutors have been intent on marrying the two trials. They've presented evidence that the flashy details -- the private jets and fancy houses used in the cover-up of Edwards' extramarital affair with the videographer Rielle Hunter and their love child, born in February 2008, a month after he dropped out of the presidential race -- were paid for with money that violated the yawn-inducing campaign finance rules.

Defense attorneys, who begin calling witnesses Monday, have been intent on separating the trials, focusing the jury's attention on the dull stuff while conceding almost all the rest.

At times, Edwards' defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, appears bent on setting a record for calling his own client a liar. "Yes, Mr. Edwards is making 18,267 false and exculpatory statements," he said during a hearing last week with federal judge Catherine Eagles. "No one is going to deny that Mr. Edwards lied and lied and lied and lied."

But Lowell is constructing a narrative about a man who lied for all the right reasons: primarily to spare his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, from more heartache while she battled the cancer that eventually claimed her life. Prosecutors counter with the notion that Edwards lied because his indiscretions would have ruined his political career.

Edwards, 58, watches it all with a weary glumness.

When he rises, the man who once worked a rope line with a toothy grin, avoids eye contact, averting his gaze from the reporters in a cramped space that accommodates 70 spectators.

The only person other than his lawyers who regularly catches his gaze is his daughter Cate Edwards, 30, in a reserved front-row seat.

John Edwards' fuguelike presence as the central character in what has become an increasingly tawdry drama is balanced against the conspicuous absence of so many of the supporting characters.

Prosecutors passed on calling Hunter, who has a reputation for unfiltered commentary, and defense attorneys are generally expected to follow suit.

Cancer took Edwards' wife in December 2010, and the disease also claimed his friend Fred Baron, the wealthy Texas lawyer who spent more than $200,000 to hide Hunter before he died in October 2008. Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the 101-year-old heiress who kicked in $725,000 for the cover-up, is also not present, considered too old to take the stand.

Prosecutors say Edwards should have reported the Mellon and Baron money as campaign contributions. They've shown a handwritten note in which she says she'll pay for campaign-related expenses as "a way to help our friends without government restrictions." They argue that the payments made by Mellon and Baron far exceeded the $2,300-per-election contribution limit.

The task of defining Edwards fell to former aides and friends who have constructed an image of a man more venal, deluded and conniving than any previous portrayal of him. He comes off as an egotist who schemed to trade his endorsement in the race for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court or as attorney general.