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.
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The prosecution was also faced with using vague laws to take aim at a campaign finance system that, at this point, has become a moving target. Though the alleged crimes happened in 2008, the jury was deciding Edwards’ guilt after the landmark 2010 Citizens United case, where the Supreme Court equated cash money with free speech. The fact is that had the same scenario played out in 2012, the transfer of funds may not have been even close to illegal – a notion that has begun to seep into not just appelate judge chambers, but the national zeitgeist.Skip to next paragraph
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Moreover, to many Americans, even those disgusted by Edwards’s decisions, it seemed like overkill. Edwards was no longer a politician, and his career and family have paid a high price for his infidelities, indiscretions and, as he said, “sins.” “Disgraced” has been among the softer adjectives used to describe him, “scoundrel” among the gentler nouns.
But he was still a guy in a suit in a courtroom, who declared, surrounded by his family after the verdict, that he, and he alone, bore responsibility for what he had done.
Zeidenberg, the former prosecutor, says the most obvious cautionary tale for the government is that it appears to some, at least, that politics played a role in the prosecution – never a good sign in a free country.
The main investigator, a North Carolina Republican named George Holding, left the case immediately after charges were announced to run for a US House seat – a move that Zeidenberg says failed to raise enough eyebrows. And although the chief prosecutor, Lanny Breuer, a Democrat, ultimately made the decision to go forward, he had his own political considerations to consider: If he didn’t proceed, the conclusion that would likely be drawn is that he was protecting a fellow Democrat.
“It’s unfortunate to say this, but there’s a definite possibility that it was politically motivated to begin with, and it makes it really hard not to ask some questions about that,” says Zeidenberg.
Once the trial got underway, the prosecution caught every break, with the judge agreeing to motions to suppress some key defense testimony and giving the jury a wide berth in how to assign guilt to Edwards.
But prosecutors also had to contend with a shaky star witness, former Edwards aide Andrew Young, who wrote a tell-all about the whole affair, at one time proferred an alleged sex tape, and who ended up using some of the money to build a fancy home.
"I think the credibility of the witness was something that was of utmost importance to us,’’ Jury foreman David Recchion said.
The Edwards trial was decidedly high-profile and high-stakes, and can still be held up by the Department of Justice as a model for what can happen if a candidate attempts campaign finance shenanigans. And few Americans really want prosecutors to be shy about pursuing miscreants just because there are some weaknesses in the case.
At this point, a retrial of Edwards on the five deadlocked charges appears a non-starter.