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McDonnell To Testify In His Own Defense In Virginia Corruption Trial

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Former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, center, with his attorney Henry W. Asbill, left, arrives at the federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., Monday, July 28, 2014, on the first day of jury selection in the corruption trial of former McDonnell and his wife in Richmond, Va.
(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, center, with his attorney Henry W. Asbill, left, arrives at the federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., Monday, July 28, 2014, on the first day of jury selection in the corruption trial of former McDonnell and his wife in Richmond, Va.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have presented their opening statements in the corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The lawyer representing the governor described his client as the kind of guy who eats Virginia ham and drinks Virginia wine. If he smoked, the defense attorney said, he would even smoke Virginia cigarettes. Maureen McDonnell's lawyer said his client had a crush on Jonnie Williams, the businessman at the center of the scandal, a man the lawyer described as a charming scoundrel who duped the McDonnells and even the Department of Justice. He warned members of the jury not to let the government's key witness dupe them too.

"It's about building a story that makes sense and answers their questions before they know they have questions. It's your first shot to build a rapport," says Rich Kelsey, assistant dean at the George Mason School of Law. He says now that the opening statements are out of the way, prosecutors will have a difficult time building a case for conspiracy, because they don't have a singular piece of evidence that ties the case together, leaving them with a series of puzzle pieces rather than a smoking gun.

"Of course, the problem that the government has is that they really are missing the quid pro quo," Kelsey says.

Lawyers for the former governor told members of the jury that they will be hearing from McDonnell, who will testify on his own behalf in the corruption trial now underway.

"It's a gutsy move because at the end of the day, you are open to withering cross examination," Kelsey says.

The upside for the governor is that he gets to tell his side of his story, in his own words. That is expected to include the governor reading out loud in court a deeply personal email to his wife about their troubled marriage. It also opens him up to cross examination, and allows prosecutors to probe into every bit of his personal and financial life.

Kelsey says the governor and his legal team of five lawyers clearly believe McDonnell is up to the job: "He's looking at this jury as a set of voters. He's confident that when he tells his side of the story and when he looks them in the eye that he'll be able to convince them that there was actually no wronging."

McDonnell was once a rising star in the Republican Party and a popular governor. Now he's in the fight of his life to stay out of federal prison. If convicted, the governor could face a maximum of 30 years in prison.

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