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Why the John Edwards prosecution went down in flames

At the outset, the government's election-fraud case against John Edwards appeared open and shut. But vague laws, a shaky star witness, and political overtones all undercut the prosecution.                                            

By Patrik JonssonStaff writer / June 1, 2012

John Edwards speaks outside a federal courthouse as his daughter Cate Edwards, left, and parents Wallace Edwards, second from right, and Bobbie Edwards, right, look on after the jury's verdict in his trial on charges of campaign corruption in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, May 31.

Chuck Burton/AP

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Atlanta

At one point, the government’s case against John Edwards seemed open and shut: The disgraced former presidential candidate must surely be guilty of something for using a wealthy donor’s six-figure checks to hide a mistress and a love child during the 2008 presidential campaign.

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This week, a jury decided just the opposite, concluding in interviews after deadlocking on most of the charges that “the evidence wasn’t there” to convict Mr. Edwards, a former senator and once-favored Democratic presidential candidate, on six counts of election fraud. The jury returned a not guilty verdict on the key charge and deadlocked on the other five.

While the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, which helped prosecute the Edwards case along with a team of North Carolina lawyers, wins far more cases than it loses (it has 161 guilty verdicts since 2009, mostly for bribe-taking), the collapse of the Edwards case hits particularly hard, in part because of the questions now being raised about why the government brought what some legal analysts say was “a lousy case” in the first place.

“I think it’s a very difficult area in the law, and there was just so much background noise in this case, such difficult witness issues, that it’s frankly not surprising to me that this is where they ended up,” says Peter Zeidenberg, a former Public Integrity Section prosecutor who now works for white-collar defendants in Washington. Given that, “I think that they obviously miscalculated the strength of this case.”

To be sure, in announcing the charges last year, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer came out swinging, declaring the case was about “campaign integrity.” And by most accounts, prosecutors handled the long, complex trial itself with aplomb and professionalism, helped along by favorable rulings from Judge Catherine Eagles. And more generally, the difference between a foolish exercise of discretion in bringing a losing case and a conviction on the part of courageous prosecutors can be whisper-thin even in the best of cases.

But for DOJ campaign investigators reeling from the fallout from the botched prosecution of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, where a judge threw out a guilty verdict after finding out that the government withheld exculpatory evidence, the rubble of the Edwards verdict holds some key lessons, legal analysts say.

One of the central ones is that the prosecution was faced with trying a unique case where the jurors, in one sense, were among the victims – in other words, defrauded voters. “If the public is the victim, then the jurors are victims, too, and they could basically say, ‘I don’t care, that happened three, four, five years ago,’ ” Mr. Zeidenberg says. What’s more, given that the Federal Election Commission had decided not to sanction Edwards, the prosecution had few clear legal precedents for trying Edwards.

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