Observers: Edwards case was doomed from the start
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (AP) — A jury’s refusal to convict John Edwards was less a redemption of the former U.S. presidential candidate than a rejection of the Justice Department’s boldest attempt to make an example of someone in enforcing campaign finance laws.
Thursday’s verdict of not guilty on one count and a mistrial on five others bore out criticism that prosecutors went after Edwards without evidence that justified the charges that he masterminded a scheme to use almost $1 million in campaign donations to hide his pregnant mistress from the public, and his terminally ill wife, while running for the White House in 2008.
“As noted by nearly every campaign finance lawyer who considered the matter, this was a lousy case,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director for the campaign finance watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “All the salacious details prosecutors offered up to prove that Edwards is, indeed, despicable, were not enough to persuade the jury to convict him.”
Several jurors said there wasn’t enough evidence. On network talk shows Friday, even jurors who thought Edwards was guilty on at least some counts said the prosecution wasn’t able to prove it.
“We tried to put our feelings aside and what we were doing was just looking at the facts to come up with a verdict,” juror Cindy Aquaro said on NBC’s “Today” show.
Edwards faced six felony charges involving nearly $1 million provided by two political donors that was used to help hide the Democrat’s mistress, Rielle Hunter. He faced a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
To convict Edwards, prosecutors needed to show not only that the candidate knew about the secret payments, which he denied, but that he knew he was violating federal law by accepting them. But the government was unable to produce any witness who said Edwards knowingly violated the law. Even former Edwards aide Andrew Young testified that Edwards told him he had consulted campaign finance lawyers who assured him the money was legal.
A former trial lawyer, Edwards was so unimpressed with the testimony against him that when the government rested, he turned to a member of his defense team and asked dismissively, “That’s their case?”
Edwards chose not to take the stand in his own defense.
“This is a case that should define the difference between a wrong and a crime … between a sin and a felony,” Edwards’ lead attorney Abbe Lowell told the jury during closing arguments. “John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those.”
Prosecutors are unlikely to retry the case, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the decision will undergo review in the coming days.
Steve Friedland, a former federal prosecutor who watched the case from inside the courtroom, predicted that Edwards won’t fare as well in the court of public opinion.
“Regardless of the decision, he still is Exhibit A for how we do not want our leaders to behave,” said Friedland, now a professor at Elon University School of Law. “This is a huge victory for him, and big burden off his shoulders, but a hollow one given his astounding fall from grace.”
The final decision to prosecute Edwards was made by the Obama administration and the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section.
The case against Edwards was tried by three prosecutors sent down from Washington and one prosecutor from the North Carolina capital. They presented 14 days of testimony and evidence, with Young their star witness.
An aide once so loyal he falsely claimed paternity of Edwards’ baby and helped hide the mistress from the media for nearly a year, Young turned against his former boss and testified for the prosecution under an immunity agreement. The defense countered by using financial records to show Young and his wife kept most of the money at issue in the case, funneling it into the construction of the couple’s $1.6 million dream home.
Before Edwards’ prosecution, no federal candidate had been tried over payments from a third party that flowed to a mistress. Sloan said the lack of resolution in the case will likely leave candidates and regulators confused about what is and is not a legitimate campaign expense.
“The U.S. criminal justice system requires fair notice of what is and is not against the law,” Sloan said. “Sadly, the Justice Department seems to have forgotten this fundamental American precept. Luckily, the jury remembered.”
Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report from Washington.
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