It is probably a good thing that the question before the jury in the trial of John Edwards, former Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator, was whether he violated federal campaign law rather than whether he was morally corrupt and reprehensible. Rendering an affirmative verdict on the latter would have been easy following weeks of testimony. Jurors had a far more difficult time with the former. Edwards was acquitted on one of six federal counts against him and the judge declared a mistrial on five other charges Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.
There was never any doubt that Edwards' personal conduct during his 2007-2008 run for his party's presidential nomination was repugnant. It was. Edwards admits that it was. How could he not? The public has long known that Edwards had an affair with a campaign worker, fathered a child with her and then flatly lied about it in a frantic effort to keep the details of the affair and knowledge of the child from his terminally ill wife and the American public.
The trial, though, was not about the affair, money or the cover-up. It was to determine whether or not Edwards broke the law by using about $1 million from two extremely wealthy donors to hide the affair. To make its case, Justice Department prosecutors had to prove that Edwards knew about the secret payments and that he knew he was violating federal law by accepting them. The prosecution clearly failed to make its case. It was not for want of trying.
Prosecutors offered a parade of witnesses , including a former aide who for a time claimed -- falsely -- that he fathered Edwards' baby. There was testimony, too, about the nearly $1 million funneled to Edwards by Fred Baron, a wealthy Texan, and Rachel Mellon, the now 101--year-old heiress to one of America's great fortunes. The evidence, though, was the stuff of soap opera -- more titillating than germane. In the end, jurors and judge decided that it did not meet the legal standard of proof required to convict Edwards of violating campaign finance laws.
The verdict and declaration of mistrial were victories of a sort for Edwards. He had refused plea bargain offers from the government, insisting that he would be cleared. Thursday's verdict confirms the wisdom of his decision. Barring a conviction emerging from what many legal experts say is an unlikely appeal by prosecutors, Edwards is now free to live with and raise his two still-young children with his late wife, to visit the child he had with his mistress and to continue to the practice of law that made him a quite wealthy man.
There are lessons to be learned from the Edwards trial. One is that the government should make sure its case is sound before starting a criminal prosecution. That was obviously not the case in Greensboro. Many laymen who followed the trial quickly decided the government's case was extraordinarily weak. The time and money spent prosecuting Edwards probably could have been invested more wisely in similar but stronger and less publicized cases.
The Edwards case exposes the unhealthy influence money has on politics. The trial won't change that. New rules that allow ultra-wealthy individuals and interest groups to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into current campaigns will continue to undermine the integrity of the nation's political system.