Two-time presidential candidate John Edwards’s defense can be summed up in one sentence: It’s all Andrew Young’s fault. It was former staffer Young who secretly coaxed nearly a million dollars out of two loyal political supporters without the former senator’s knowledge, Edwards’s attorneys claim. And it was Young—now the government’s star witness against Edwards—who the defense alleges kept the money for himself and then sold out his employer by writing a tell-all book which, by the way, might become a major motion picture.
In a blistering, rapid fire, 43-minute opening statement, Edwards’s attorney began dramatically by saying, “John Edwards is a man who has committed many sins--but no crimes.” The wealthy Edwards had brought in high-powered Washington attorney Abbe Lowell to join his defense team, but it was a less well-known local woman, Allison Van Laningham, who delivered the crucial opening address to the jury as the government’s case against Edwards got underway Monday. Reviews on her performance were mixed.
Van Laningham arrived at the podium and inexplicably placed a jumbo white tablet on an easel that immediately blocked the jury’s view of her client. It also blocked the view of Edwards’s elderly parents and his older daughter, Cate, who were sitting in the front row directly behind the defense table. On the paper Van Laningham wrote in big block letters at the top, “FOLLOW THE MONEY,” and explained this was the northernmost point on the compass her team would provide to help guide the jury through the case. “Follow the money,” and it would lead directly to the bank account of Andrew Young, she alleged. “That money wound up in the pockets of Andrew and [wife] Cheri Young … [for] their $1.5 million Chapel Hill home they were building.”
On the southern point of her invisible compass, Van Laningham wrote “HUMILIATION” and turned to the nine men and seven women in the jury box and declared, “This is what motivated John Edwards. He did not want to be humiliated. He did not want his wife to be humiliated either.” Edwards did not act out of a need to try to save a political campaign, she explained, he simply acted to hide his pregnant mistress for fear of losing his wife and his good standing as a North Carolina golden boy.
The western side of the enormous tablet was labeled, “PRIVATE OR POLITICAL” and it played nicely with the message on the eastern side: “NO CRIMINAL INTENT.” Van Laningham repeatedly referred to the money used to hide Edwards’s mistress Rielle Hunter as “private money, not political.” It was simply people helping a pregnant woman afford medical care, shelter, and baby furniture, the attorney said.
“Did anyone think people giving money so a woman could have a baby was wrong? John Edwards did not ask for that money,” Van Laningham argued. “He did not have criminal intent. It never crossed his mind that money for his mistress would be political!” And therefore, the attorney said, the government will not be able to prove the necessary criminal intent needed for a guilty finding.
More than half a dozen times Van Laningham told the jury, “Not one penny went to the John Edwards for president campaign or to John Edwards.” As a point of fact: the prosecution doesn’t allege that Edwards took any money for himself, rather that he hatched a secret conspiracy to get illegal campaign contributions to take care of his mistress because he couldn’t risk getting caught paying for it out of his own family’s bank account.
Throughout his opening statement, lead prosecutor David Harbach repeated a mantra that Edwards had indeed known all about every step Young took in the quest to hide Hunter from the relentless media and the unsuspecting public. “This wasn’t just a marriage on the line, but a presidential campaign on the line. This was dangerous. The mistress was a loose cannon, unemployed and needing money—and he knew it,” Harbach said. At another point, the prosecutor said of Edwards, “He made a choice to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars so that he could become president. And he knew it.” Edwards did what he always did when he found himself in a pickle, Harbach said, “Deny, deceive, and manipulate.”
As the day’s first presenter to the jury, the prosecutor warned the panel that they might not like his lead witness. “Andrew Young’s hands aren’t exactly clean either. He was manipulated and willing to do anything for John Edwards. He is an exhibit as much as a witness.”
But the most severe words for Young came from Van Laningham. She said there will be evidence to prove that it was actually Young’s idea to claim paternity of Hunter’s child because that was the best way to tie himself to Edwards and ensure the continued flow of money. She told the jury that Young had recently telephoned three people on the witness list to try to see what their testimony might be. [Earlier, outside the presence of the jury, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles had warned the defense not to use inflammatory phrases like “witness tampering” and they complied. But the point was made.] And Van Laningham was precise in mentioning the money Young made from his bestselling book, The Politician, which is expected to become a Hollywood movie “and bring him even more money.”
In a final zinger, Van Laningham told the jury, “As a former campaign staffer told us, ‘If Andrew Young says it’s raining, you best get up, go to the window, and check.’”
Van Laningham seemed to lose the jury at one point as she forgot her compass points and rattled off vast amounts of money the Young’s had allegedly channeled through their bank account. Juror No. 3 seemed to doze off, juror No. 2 yawned. Judge Eagle, who looks and sounds like a younger version of Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show, jumped in at one point to ask the defense counsel to slow down, as she seemed to be racing through her prepared remarks.
Catherine Ross Dunham, associate dean and professor of law at Elon University, opined, “I think the prosecutor did a very fine job. He was together, focused, and organized.” As for the defense attorney, Dunham told The Daily Beast, “If she were my student, I would tell her she has several things she should work on.”
Young did appear at the end of the day, to begin to tell the jury about his background and how he came to believe, as he put it, that John Edwards could “do great things, and me working for him [would mean] great things for our family.” His testimony is expected to stretch over several days.