Cheri Young, the ‘Steel Magnolia’ of the Edwards Trial, Shoves Back

At the John Edwards trial on Tuesday, Cheri Young, wife of ex-staffer Andrew Young, battled the politician’s attorneys like a heavyweight champ.

Shawn Rocco / Newscom

Don’t ever think you might be able to sneak something by Cheri Young.

After watching her answer questions for three days at the campaign-finance corruption trial of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, court watchers are calling her “spunky,” “feisty,” and “a steel magnolia.” Under cross-examination by the Edwards defense team, this 38-year-old wife and mother of three proved that while she may weigh in at just a hundred pounds or so, she is a heavyweight when it comes to testifying about the so-called Pregnant Mistress Cover-Up.

You might call Cheri Young the second key witness in the case against the former politician, after her husband, Andrew, who for years was an indispensable aide to John Edwards, so loyal that he claimed paternity of the baby Edwards created with his mistress, Rielle Hunter, so Edwards’s campaign for president wouldn’t be marred by scandal. In the end, it didn’t quite turn out that way.

While Cheri Young has been impressively attentive to detail on the stand as she politely spars with defense attorney Alan Duncan, there have been some cringe-worthy moments for federal prosecutors. The first came early when Duncan pulled out notes from an FBI agent, written during a meeting with Mrs. Young just two weeks ago. He zeroed in on the section where she described the time period when she and Andrew took on the task of hiding the pregnant Hunter from the media.

“Did you say Mr. Young was ‘drinking a lot’ in 2006 and 7?"

“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Young replied.

“Has your husband continued to drink a lot since then?”

“No, sir.”“Did you let the prosecution and FBI know … (that) Mr. Young takes Ambien for a sleeping disorder?” Duncan asked, referring to the agent’s notes.“Yes, sir.”

“And you told the FBI and the prosecution that Ambien makes your husband ‘loopy’ and the next day he doesn’t remember?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So you know he mixes Ambien with alcohol?”

“I don’t watch him take his medication, sir,” she replied.

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Some might not question why a man would turn to drink after falsely claiming paternity of a baby and being forced to flee his home with his wife, three small children, and his boss's pregnant girlfriend. Yet Duncan seemed to score points when he got Cheri Young to admit that her husband’s memory was sometimes impaired from the alcohol and sleeping pills. The jury listened closely.

The defense attorney’s questions also focused on the exhaustive hours Andrew Young spent working for the candidate at the expense of his own family. “Didn’t that cause tremendous friction in your marriage?” Duncan prodded.

“There were a lot of things I had to swallow for the love of my husband and my children,” Young volunteered. “And this was one of those things. This was Andrew’s dream.”

Because she had been required to swallow so many things, she was asked about her anger toward the Edwards family. Didn’t all those hard feelings result in her wanting to "take down John Edwards?”

Cheri Young bristled in her stylish blue dress, her shoulder-length hair let loose from the ponytail of the day before. She sat up straight. “Sir, that is a completely false statement. I am here to tell the truth about my experiences and what happened. This has been a third of my life, OK?” she said, referring to the seven years since Rielle Hunter first entered their lives. “I’m learning from my own mistakes … There is no hatred. I can’t live like that, sir.”

Attorney Duncan, every bit a Southern gentleman, quickly moved on to a more benign topic.

By and by, the subject turned to how much money the Youngs have made from the sale of Mr. Young’s book, The Politician. The witness said she didn’t know, but the jury was shown one royalty check for $244,000. And what about the Hollywood movie rights they sold?

“So, you hope to make significant money from the movie?” the defense attorney asked.

“Income?” Cheri Young said, bobbing her head up and down. “Yeah. I’ll take income,” and she smiled, seeming to imply: who wouldn’t? Duncan dug in, asking whether the movie version would be less profitable if the book was proven to contain falsehoods.

Another flashpoint for the witness as her words tumbled out. “The only reason—the only reason—my husband had to write a book is because Mr. Edwards did not come forward and tell the truth! Mr. Duncan … from 2007 to January 2010, we waited. He (Edwards) didn’t claim paternity until ... two weeks before my husband’s book came out. I can’t take responsibility for the lies John Edwards said.”

And so the verbal sparring continued throughout the court day with Cheri Young making the defense attorney work hard for every single piece of information.

There were many questions about how much money the Youngs spent on the 5,300-square-foot home they were building near Chapel Hill, N.C., while being on the run with the pregnant Hunter in Florida, Colorado, and California. There were several questions about exactly how much money was funneled to the mistress. And the Youngs' past income-tax returns were picked over to the point where Judge Catherine Eagles finally invoked Rule 403—euphemistically called the “Don’t Waste the Court’s Time" Rule—and ordered an end to that line of questioning. After the jury was instructed to leave the room, Eagles threw up her hands and told the defense attorney, “You hit my 403 limit. (It is) confusing, argumentative, and hard to understand.”

“The manner of their cross-examination certainly is not classic. It’s almost backward in its form,” attorney Kiernan Shanahan told The Daily Beast from his seat inside the courtroom. As a long-time practicing lawyer based in Raleigh, Shanahan concluded, “I think it had the effect of confusing the jury and clearly irritating the judge.”

Late in the day the defense was granted permission from the judge to show the jury a 13-minute video that Cheri Young had made of the house that was rented and furnished for Rielle Hunter when she first went into hiding in their gated Chapel Hill community.

“Didn’t you pull out personal and private things of hers and video them? … Her driver’s license, passport, personal photos, and a list of names for her unborn child?” Duncan asked. Cheri Young admitted she took a camera to the house in late September 2008 but denied rooting through Hunter’s belongings.

“We had no contact with Miss Hunter or Mr. Edwards for months. The house was furnished with funds that I was accountable for. I videotaped the house to prove there really was a Rielle Hunter and there really was a house. Things had gone sour, and no one was communicating with us.”

The bulk of the video was of photographs and paraphernalia Young said she found in plain sight on a kitchen counter. It began with an old newspaper clipping with a picture of Hunter (identified by her birth name, Lisa Jo Druck) and the headline “Heart Fund Deb.” Also seen were pictures of Hunter as a child, as an adult riding horses, and with unidentified friends. Among the photos captured on the video was a wedding photo of Rielle in a traditional white dress and standing next to her now ex-husband. There was also a business card of Hunter’s with the message “Being Is Free” emblazoned over a red heart. Only about five minutes of the video featured the interior of the upscale, three-bedroom, split-level house and its nearly all-white furnishings. In the master bedroom suite the curtains, bedclothes, and lamps were all white. Still plugged into a bathroom outlet was a hair-styling appliance that looked as though it had been hurriedly left behind by its owner.

Cross-examination of Cheri Young is to conclude tomorrow. The third witness up is expected to be Josh Brumberger who, according to the bestselling book Game Change, was with Senator Edwards in February 2006 at the Regency Hotel in New York when Rielle Hunter first approached the candidate to tell him how handsome he was. Brumberger, according to the book, considered Hunter “trouble from the get-go.”