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John Edwards trial begins in North Carolina; mistress Rielle Hunter on witness list

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Edwards arrives at court with his daughter in Greensboro, N.C., April 23, 2012. (Chuck Burton/AP)

John Edwards arrived at federal court in Greensboro, N.C., early Monday to face charges he used campaign funds to cover up an affair he had with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter while his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was battling cancer.

Today, Edwards faces six criminal counts—including conspiracy, four counts of receiving illegal campaign contributions and one count of making false statements—for allegedly soliciting and secretly spending over $925,000 to "maintain his image as a model family man," as Agence France-Presse put it. If convicted on all six counts, Edwards faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

Edwards engaged in "knowing and willful violation of the federal campaign finance laws," the prosecution alleged in court filings before the trial.

The prosecution's case is expected to rely heavily on testimony from Andrew Young, Edwards' aide who, at the request of his boss, initially claimed to be the father of Hunter's baby. Young's 2010 tell-all book "The Politician," which chronicled the affair, will be a key part of the trial, as will testimony from Wendy Button, Edwards' former speechwriter.

For Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, two-time presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate, it has been a spectacular fall from grace. In 2004, Edwards was John Kerry's running mate on the Democratic ticket. In 2008, he ran against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and was tagged as a potential vice presidential choice before Obama picked Joe Biden.

During the 2008 campaign, Edwards repeatedly denied having the affair, finally admitting to it that August after ending his presidential bid. In January 2010, he confessed to fathering a child with Hunter. Elizabeth Edwards died in December 2010.

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Young and Hunter settled a lawsuit earlier this year over his possession of a purported sex tape featuring Edwards and Hunter. As part of the settlement, copies of the tape were ordered to be destroyed. It's unclear whether Hunter, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., with now 4-year-old Frances Quinn Hunter, will take the stand. According to The New York Times, she's on the witness list for both the defense and the prosecution.

Edwards' defense team maintains that the funds their client used to hide his mistress were personal gifts from a pair of wealthy friends—the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the widow of banking heir Paul Mellon—and were unrelated to his presidential campaign. According to Reuters, the 101-year-old Mellon is "physically unable" to attend the trial.

The defense is expected to call two former Federal Election Commission chairmen, Robert Lenhard and Scott E. Thomas, to testify that the gifts were not a violation of campaign finance laws. It's unclear, however, if the judge in the case will allow their testimony.

"He knows he made mistakes," Glenn Bergenfield, Edwards' longtime friend, told The Washington Post. "But John thinks that the treatment of him is so unflinchingly horrible and that what he did is not so different from what others did—JFK, Clinton, the whole rogues' gallery. We've had this conversation about his situation, and I remember he did compare it to Clinton. He said, 'I did a horrendous thing, but I don't know why I'm getting such an unforgiving treatment when you think of what other people have done.'"

The 58-year-old Edwards lives in Chapel Hill with two children from his marriage to Elizabeth, 13-year-old Emma Claire and 11-year-old Jack. Cate, his 30-year-old daughter who's a graduate of Harvard law school, accompanied him to court. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

The implications of an Edwards conviction on future political campaigns—including the current one—loom large. "It's going to mean lots more lawyers employed by campaigns," Hampton Dellinger, a former deputy attorney general, told Reuters. "There's going to be a lot more legal risk involved in election reporting if the government wins this."

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