RALEIGH, N.C. » A relieved John Edwards said after his mistrial on campaign corruption charges that he believed good things were still in store for him, though image makers and his friends agree that does not include politics.
The ex-presidential candidate who turned 59 this week will no longer have to face that future with federal charges hanging over his head after prosecutors on Wednesday dropped their campaign fraud case against him. After a six-week trial in North Carolina, jurors acquitted Edwards May 31 on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions and deadlocked on five other felony counts. The judge declared a mistrial.
The U.S. Justice Department said in a court order that it will not seek to retry Edwards on the five unresolved counts, leaving some to say the charges shouldn’t have been brought in the first place.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who oversees the agency’s criminal division, said prosecutors knew the case, like all campaign finance cases, would be challenging. But he said it is "our duty to bring hard cases" when warranted.
"Last month, the government put forward its best case against Mr. Edwards, and I am proud of the skilled and professional way in which our prosecutors …. conducted this trial," he said, adding that he respected the jury’s judgment and decided not to seek a retrial "in the interest of justice."
Edwards left his response to the dismissal up to his attorneys, Abbe Lowell, Allison Van Laningham and Alan W. Duncan. They said in a joint statement that they are pleased with the government’s decision not to seek a second trial they believe would have had the same outcome.
"While John has repeatedly admitted to his sins, he has also consistently asserted, as we demonstrated at the trial, that he did not violate any campaign law nor even imagined that any campaign laws could apply," they said. "We are very glad that, after living under this cloud for over three years, John and his family can have their lives back and enjoy the peace they deserve."
Prosecutors accused Edwards of masterminding a scheme to use about $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy political donors to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House in 2008. He would have faced up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges. Neither he nor Hunter took the stand.
At trial, the case against Edwards rested largely on the testimony of his former right-hand man, Andrew Young, who initially claimed paternity of his boss’ baby and deposited most of the money at issue in the case into his family’s personal accounts. But upon cross examination, Edwards’ lawyers used inconsistencies from Young’s past statements to undermine his credibility and used bank records to show the aide and his wife siphoned off much of the money to help build their $1.6 million dream home.
The trial exposed a sordid sex scandal that unfolded while Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer, including the most intimate details of his affair with Hunter. But despite recounting the salacious details of his family tragedy, legal experts said the government failed to prove Edwards knowingly violated campaign finance law.
Several jurors said a clear majority within the group after deliberating nine days wanted to acquit Edwards on all charges.
"It was a weak case," Curtis Driggers, a juror from Ellerbe, told The Associated Press last week. "It was all on Andrew Young and he didn’t carry much weight with me. If they don’t have any more factual information than what they presented, I don’t think any other jury would reach a different decision."
Bruce Reinhart, a criminal defense attorney who was a federal prosecutor for 19 years, said the prosecution’s theory in this case was "aggressive."
"I think they were trying to plow new ground, but I can’t say they were wrong to bring the case," said Reinhart, who spent eight years in the Justice Department’s public integrity section, which prosecuted Edwards. "Sometimes you have to bring tough cases, and tough cases are hard to win."
From the start, though, Edwards’ lawyers painted the prosecution as politically motivated and several campaign finance experts said that even if he had known about the money flowing to his mistress, he wasn’t violating the law.
Melanie Sloan, the executive director for the campaign watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the ex-North Carolina senator never should have been charged. No federal candidate had ever before been tried over payments from a third party that flowed to the politician’s mistress.
"It was a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money," Sloan said. "Now maybe the Justice Department can get back to prosecuting people who actually broke the law."
Edwards denied doing anything illegal in his statement after the mistrial but acknowledged he had done much that was wrong.
"There is no one else responsible for my sins," Edwards said, before expressing hope for his future. "I don’t think God’s through with me. I really believe he thinks there’s still some good things I can do."
Likely not in politics, though, with image experts advising he should stay out of the public eye.
"I think John Edwards has no political future. Nada, zip," said Emory University political science professor Merle Black soon after the mistrial.
Experts say he should stay out of the public eye for a time and concentrate on his family, something he said in his statement that he would like to do. He has one grown daughter, 30-year-old Cate, a teenage daughter, Emma Claire, and his youngest son, Jack. His son, Wade, died in a car accident in 1996.
He also indicated he spends time with the daughter, now 4, whom he fathered with Hunter. He called Francis Quinn Hunter "precious."
After two years of public denials, Edwards announced he was the father of Hunter’s baby in January 2010. The girl lives with her mother in Charlotte.
Cate Edwards reacted to Wednesday’s decision through her Twitter account. She sat behind her father in the courtroom nearly every day of his lengthy trial.
"Big sigh of relief," Cate Edwards tweeted. "Ready to move forward with life."
Associated Press writer Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.