To their credit, the jury in the John Edwards trial wasn’t bamboozled by the federal effort to treat the former presidential candidate’s personal misconduct as a federal crime. Nor did they validate the government’s effort to expand the scope of election finance laws by treating any expenditure relating to a candidate as being a campaign contribution. After a week of deliberations following a long trial and a confusing charge from the judge, Edwards was acquitted on one charge, and the jury were deadlocked on the other five counts. A mistrial was declared on the unresolved issues, meaning the Justice Department could return to the federal court in North Carolina to try Edwards again. But after an expensive and time-consuming flop, the U.S. Attorney should take the hint. It’s time to end the government’s attempt to jail the unpopular former senator and Democratic presidential candidate.
Like the high profile trials of people like Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds and the ongoing prosecution of Roger Clemens, Edwards was singled out because he is famous, rich and extremely disliked by the general public. Edwards’ personal misbehavior made him one of the most loathsome people in the country. But there was no justification for putting him on trial for lying to his now-deceased wife and the country about his affair and fathering an illegitimate child with a campaign videographer. As unjustified as the first attempt to use the campaign finance laws to punish him was, a second bite of the apple would be outrageous.
As I previously noted, there was a broader principle at stake in this trial than just whether Edwards would be further humiliated for his disgraceful conduct. Had the government succeeded in getting a judge and jury to agree that gifts from friends that were used to try and cover up his affair were campaign contributions, it would have opened up every politician in the country to prosecution on virtually any financial transaction while they were running for office. It may be, as some have pointed out, that the courts’ legalization of independent advocacy groups under the Citizens United decision would have provided a venue for what Edwards’ friends did in 2008. But a guilty verdict would still have validated a power grab to the government that could have made a great deal of political mischief in the hands of partisan prosecutors.
Having been beaten in court, the prosecutors should give up on this ill-considered celebrity scalp hunt and move on to trying real criminals. Edwards deserves to be treated as a pariah, but had he been convicted, it would have been a massive miscarriage of justice. Though we have often had reason to ponder the wisdom of jury trials, in this case the system appears to have worked.