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For John Edwards, an unexpected opening


GREENSBORO, N.C. — The list of John Edwards' gambles is legendary. It grew longer on Monday.

The dice roll came early in Alison Van Laningham's opening statement on behalf of the once-acclaimed lawyer and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee:

We are not here to debate whether a large amount of money flowed from Mrs. Mellon or Mr. Baron. We now know that it did. We are here to follow the path of that money, to follow the path, and the evidence will show that it ended up in the pockets of Andrew and Cheri Young and in the wood and in the stone and in the walls and in the roof of their $1.5 million house in Chapel Hill.

(Those reference are to Fred Baron and Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, money from whom was used for the travel and living expenses of Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter and of political aide Andrew Young and his family in 2007 and 2008, while Edwards was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.)

And with that allegation — essentially that Young, not John Edwards, sought hundreds of thousands of dollars from Edwards' wealthy political supporters and then kept it for himself — United States v. Johnny Reid Edwards was transformed into Edwards v. Andrew Aldridge Young.

Full trial coverage

Analysis by Hampton Dellinger

A common mistake in opening statements is for lawyers to overpromise. After underdelivering during the evidence phase of the case, the attorneys then get nailed by opposing counsel during closing arguments. In months of pretrial hearings and thousands of pages in written briefings, Team Edwards gave little indication that the attempted takedown of Young would take a Tracy Kidder-esque turn.

In retrospect, Edwards's intention to center his defense on Young's alleged pocket-lining and home-building helps explain his awkward last-minute addition of Van Laningham and her partner, Alan Duncan, to his trial team. The pair represented Rielle Hunter in her civil suit against Young over possession of the Edwards-Hunter sex tape. It's now clear they learned enough to level serious self-dealing allegations against the former aide to Edwards.

If Edwards can back up the allegations against Young, we're looking at a very different case. I have long thought the facts favored the government while the law (at least as applied before his prosecution) was on Edwards' side. If Edwards can successfully recast the facts and replace Young for himself as the principal architect and beneficiary of Mellon's and Baron's beneficence, the gamble in opening may look like a smart bet by trial's end. 

A final thought: Given that Edwards thinks he has the goods on Young, I was surprised that Van Laningham's opening continued with the claim that Edwards' interest in keeping his affair quiet was centered on saving his marriage, not his 2008 campaign for president:

We are here to talk about the evidence that will show that John Edwards did not hide his mistress for any campaign purpose. He did it why anybody does it, to keep it from his wife and to keep from humiliating himself and his family.

To my mind — and to borrow a concept from labor and employment law — Edwards' interest in hiding his affair is a classic case of "mixed motive": He was trying to preserve the viability of both his marriage and his campaign. 

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