GREENSBORO, N.C. – After years of investigation, denials and delays, jury selection began Thursday for the criminal trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards.
Edwards sat at the defense table as about 180 potential jurors filed into a Greensboro, N.C., courtroom. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles then asked Edwards to stand and face them. He grinned and nodded as the judge introduced him.
The trial had been scheduled to begin in late January, but was delayed after Edwards' lawyers told the judge he had a serious heart problem that required treatment. Compared with the quick-smiling candidate of four years ago, the former U.S. senator, now 58, appeared slightly gaunt in the cheeks but still had no trace of gray in his carefully parted hair.
Edwards faces six criminal counts related to nearly $1 million in secret payments made by two campaign donors to help hide the married Democrat's pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.
"This is not a case about whether Mr. Edwards was a good husband or politician," the judge said from the bench. "It's about whether he violated campaign finance laws. ... The Constitution says trial by jury, not trial by Internet or trial by gossip."
Edwards' parents and eldest daughter sat in the court as Eagles emphasized to the potential jurors their role in the upcoming trial and ordered them not to tell anyone, even their families, that they had been called for the Edwards case. She also advised them to put out of their minds any media coverage they had seen and to ignore any legal dramas they might have seen on television, because such shows may mischaracterize the law or how a courtroom operates.
"You can watch Law & Order, Judge Judy, John Grisham; put it out of your mind," Eagles said. "I will tell you what the law is."
The jurors were then ushered to other parts of the courthouse to fill out lengthy written questionnaires. Their answers will be used to begin the screening process, set to resume Monday.
By the end of next week, the large jury pool is to be winnowed down to 12 jurors and at least four alternate jurors expected to attend each day of the proceedings. Opening arguments are scheduled to begin April 22.
The trial is expected to last six weeks, though the judge warned it could go even longer.
"There are many ways that on TV justice is not realistic," she said. "One of those is that trials occur in an hour."
The money at issue in the case flowed to Andrew Young, a former campaign aide who initially claimed the baby was his. Young is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution. The mistress, Rielle Hunter, may testify as part of Edwards' defense.
Following years of adamant public denials, Edwards acknowledged paternity of Hunter's daughter in 2010.
A key question 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.
If convicted, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and as much as $1.5 million in fines.
U.S. marshals taped off a lane at the front steps of the courthouse so that Edwards and his family could exit the building without being crowded by the media.
Asked if he had any comment, Edwards gave a terse "No" and got inside an SUV waiting at the curb.