GREENSBORO, N.C. — The lead defense attorney for John Edwards dangled the possibility that the former presidential candidate and his former mistress, Rielle Hunter, might be called as witnesses on Wednesday in a corruption trial now in its fourth week.
The revelation late Tuesday afternoon by Abbe Lowell sent a jolt through the overflow audience jammed into a small federal courtroom here. Networks scrambled to set up contingency coverage plans and members of the public who line up each day to watch the proceedings gushed about the chance to hear the famously unexpurgated Hunter recount the details of her affair with Edwards. “That would be amazing,” one woman said as the audience herded out of the courtroom.
Legal experts still consider remote the chances of having Hunter take the stand, and there also are great risks for defendants, such as Edwards, testifying on their own behalf. Yet if any defendant might be comfortable in that setting, it would be Edwards, who made a fortune as a trial lawyer in the same state where he now is charged with multiple campaign finance violations related to his failed 2008 presidential bid. “It’s hard to keep defendants who are politicians or lawyers off the stand,” observed Kieran Shanahan, a seasoned North Carolina lawyer who has sat through the entire case. Edwards is both.
Prosecutors are trying to prove that Edwards knew that two wealthy supporters — Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron — provided approximately $1 million to pay for Hunter’s living expenses and keep her quiet about the affair and the birth of a child fathered by Edwards. Under the prosecution’s theory, Edwards needed both kept secret because they would have damaged his chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, and later would have ruined his prospects of being named to the party’s ticket as a running mate or being appointed attorney general or a U.S. Supreme Court justice. They claim the coverup money was related to Edwards’s campaign and his later aspirations for top-level appointments, and therefore should have been reported as campaign donations.
Defense attorneys have coaxed witnesses to testify about another possible motivation for the payments and for keeping the affair secret: that Edwards was trying to spare more pain for his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who was battling the cancer that took her life in 2010. Lowell, Edwards’s attorney, said Tuesday that he might call Cate Edwards, Edwards’s daughter, as a witness, presumably to humanize her father. Cate Edwards has attended the entire trial, sitting through emotional testimony about her mother’s death and scathing witness remarks about her father’s many deceptions.
The defense case is moving at a fast clip. Prosecutors called witnesses for nearly three weeks, and Lowell said the defense may wrap up on Wednesday, just three days after calling its first witness on Monday. The defense is attempting to convince the jury that Edwards knew nothing about the payments by Mellon and Baron. On Tuesday, John Moylan, a confidant and political adviser to Edwards, testified that the former senator was “surprised” when Mellon told him in August 2008 that she had been sending money to Andrew Young, an Edwards aide, through a North Carolina interior decorator. “Bunny, you should not be sending money to anyone,” Moylan testified that Edwards told the heiress during a meeting at her estate in Upperville, Va.
Young has testified that Edwards was aware of the payments, and the defense has concentrated much of its efforts on discrediting him. On Tuesday, Elizabeth Nicholas, a former executive assistant to Edwards, testified that Young wasn’t a “team player.” When asked what see she thought of Young, she didn’t hesitate. Her former colleague, she said, was “dishonest.”