After deliberating for nine days, a federal jury in North Carolina acquitted John Edwards of one criminal charge and could not agree on a verdict regarding the other five charges. Today U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial.
Prosecutors charged Edwards with one count of conspiracy, one count of making false statements, and four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions from Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Fred Baron. Most of the money Mellon and Baron provided covered personal expenses of Edwards' mistress Reille Hunter and senior Edwards campaign staffer Andrew Young, who falsely claimed paternity when Hunter's pregnancy was revealed in late 2007.
The jury acquitted Edwards of accepting illegal campaign contributions from Mellon in 2008. I assume that is because she gave that money after Edwards had suspended his presidential campaign. Jurors could not agree on a verdict regarding the other charges. Jonathan Easley reported for The Hill, "The prosecution could still choose to retry Edwards on those counts, but most legal experts think this is unlikely due to the complexity of the case, the cost to litigate and the small amount of jail time that would come with a conviction."
I am surprised the jury didn't convict Edwards, given that his actions were so sleazy. Jeralyn Merritt, an experienced criminal defense attorney, has been covering the court case in detail at Talk Left. She discussed how prosecutors called several witnesses who dwelled on the affair and its effect on the candidate's wife, Elizabeth Edwards. Judge Eagles later excluded defense testimony about a Federal Election Commission audit, which determined that the gifts in question were not campaign contributions.
The prosecution and defense sought different phrasing for the judge's jury instructions, and Judge Eagles favored the prosecution's wording in almost every respect.
On the other hand, Merritt has pointed out some big holes in the government's case. For instance, Mellon's attorney testified that not only did his client pay gift taxes on the money, she would have provided the gifts as a friend, regardless of whether Edwards was running for president. This Talk Left post summarized the key defense arguments well. The government had a burden to prove not only that the gifts were illegal campaign contributions, but that Edwards acted "willfully," knowing that they were illegal contributions.
Many people have asked me what I think about this trial, given that I was an active Edwards supporter and volunteer before the 2008 Iowa caucuses. I think Edwards summed it up pretty well today:
While I do not believe I did anything illegal, or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong and there is no one else responsible for my sins.
As I have discussed here and here, I do not think Edwards should have run for president while conducting an extramarital affair. I feel embarrassed to have inadvertently misled people while advocating for his candidacy.
At the same time, I believe this prosecution was an abuse of power and a big public-relations exercise. The FEC is the government agency that regulates campaign contributions. If their audit determined that the gifts from Mellon and Baron were not campaign contributions, then criminal charges should never have been filed against Edwards. I don't understand why the judge didn't allow the jury to hear expert testimony about the FEC's view of the gifts. The Mellon and Baron money wasn't received in the Middle District of North Carolina, so it makes no sense to prosecute Edwards there, unless this case was about building someone else's political career.
The case exposes some problems with federal campaign finance laws. Sheldon Adelson and his relatives donated more than $20 million to a super-PAC supporting Newt Gingrich. Most of that money was spent on television commercials explicitly urging voters to support Gingrich or oppose some other candidate. No one called that an illegal campaign contribution. Yet money that built Andrew Young a dream home was somehow construed as an illegal campaign contribution to Edwards.
Using your friends' money to cover up infidelities is unethical, not criminal, behavior. I agree with Melanie Sloan, executive director of the non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
As noted by nearly every campaign finance lawyer who considered the matter, this was a lousy case. All the salacious details prosecutors offered up to prove that Edwards is, indeed, despicable, were not enough to persuade the jury to convict him. [...]
You'd think [the U.S. Department of Justice] would recognize there are more pressing issues confronting our nation than whether Roger Clemens took steroids and John Edwards hid his mistress, but maybe not. DOJ should apologize to the American people for wasting scarce taxpayer dollars and focus resources on serious matters like the widespread mortgage fraud or the financial crisis that harmed millions of Americans.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.
P.S. While I regret the time I spent volunteering for Edwards in 2007, I will never regret not volunteering for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. If I could do that year over again, I would focus my volunteer efforts on various non-profit causes.