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Virginia corruption trial is playing like a prime soap opera

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After former Gov. Bob McDonnell took the witness stand in his public corruption trial, a narrative worthy of a nighttime soap opera got even juicier.

Jurors and everyone following the story that has dominated front pages across Virginia for four weeks had already heard how his wife, Maureen, had turned the stately and seemingly serene Executive Mansion into a house of workplace horrors with her incessant yelling at employees. They also heard how she sought the attentions of a slick vitamin entrepreneur while her husband was away or preoccupied with his job.

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, center, her lawyer, Heather Martin, left, and an unidentified woman, right, leave the federal courthouse in Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown)

Then the man once widely considered a possible running mate for Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney told his story, laying bare the most intimate details of his personal life.

The wow moment came when the defense introduced McDonnell’s melancholic letter to his “soulmate,” professing his love for her and gratitude for their life together, apologizing for his shortcomings, calling her out for hers, and begging her to work with him to save the marriage.

“I am lonely sometimes,” McDonnell wrote on Labor Day 2011. “I want to be in love, not just watch movies about it.”

He was not specific about his faults, but clear about hers: “I am so spiritually and mentally exhausted from being yelled at. I don’t think you realize how you are affecting me and sometimes others with your tongue.”

And there were other revelations from his testimony: He got in the habit of working late to avoid going home and dealing with his wife’s rage. He moved out of the family home and into the rectory of a Catholic church for the duration of the trial for much the same reason. He had no idea how tight his wife and the vitamin guy, Jonnie Williams, had become and was “hurt” to learn they had exchanged 950 phone calls and text messages. But neither McDonnell nor any of the other witnesses believed the relationship was sexual – and Williams had testified that it was not.

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell pauses as he arrives at the federal courthouse Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, in Richmond, Va., for his corruption trial. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown)

The marital discord is a key element of the defense as the McDonnells fight charges that they performed “official acts” to benefit Williams, the former Star Scientific Inc. CEO who showered them with more than $165,000 in gifts, trips and loans. The theory is that the McDonnells could not have conspired because they were barely communicating. To illustrate the point, McDonnell said his wife didn’t even respond to his letter pleading for reconciliation.

Defense attorneys had prepped the jury for McDonnell’s woebegone testimony by calling a parade of former Maureen McDonnell associates who portrayed her as petulant, suspicious, secretive, manipulative, accusatory and prone to angry outbursts. It’s a character portrait that could bolster the notion that Maureen schemed behind her husband’s back to solicit most of the gifts and loans, and engender sympathy for the former governor.

But it also could backfire, said College of William & Mary law professor Adam Gershowitz, who specializes in criminal procedure and evidence.

“It’s a strategy that’s fraught with danger,” he said. “Normally doing something unchivalrous like throwing your wife under the bus doesn’t play very well with regular people, which is what you have with a jury.”

Nevertheless, the former governor could beat at least some of the charges in the 14-count indictment if he is convincing enough, Gershowitz said.

Brad Long isn’t on the jury and hasn’t been in court, but the 34-year-old Richmond resident said he has been following the case closely and believes Bob McDonnell is guilty of nothing more than using poor judgment.

“It seems like his wife has expensive taste and is a little greedy,” Long said Friday as he stopped by a suburban coffee shop. “I think it’s more on her shoulders than his.”

Long said he feels some sympathy for the former governor, and he believes the jury might too.

Pete Borman, 59, of Richmond also has kept up with the daily news reports. He said that while McDonnell could get some sympathy from jurors, the former governor is getting none from him.

“They absolutely should be convicted,” Borman said. “It doesn’t absolve them of guilt because their marriage was falling apart.”

Before the former governor took the stand, prosecutors had tried to discredit the marital discord theory by pointing out frequent hand-holding and other public displays of affection by the McDonnells. They will get a chance to tackle the issue head on when they cross-examine McDonnell, perhaps as soon as Monday.

But Gershowitz predicted a different approach from prosecutors who have used phone records, emails and other documents to produce detailed charts aimed at connecting the dots in the alleged gifts-for-favors scheme.

“They’re going to hammer him on what he knew,” Gershowitz said. “They will try to get back to let’s follow the money.”

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