After seven weeks of trial, nine days of jury deliberation, and a final, wild afternoon of mixed signals and false starts, a federal jury found former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) not guilty on one count of felony campaign finance fraud and was deadlocked on the other five. Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial, and Edwards walked free, at least for now. "I want to make sure that everyone hears from me and from my voice that while I do not believe I did anything illegal or ever thought I was doing something illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that is wrong," Edwards told reporters from the courthouse steps. Here's a look at what happened, and what the future holds for Edwards:
What was Edwards on trial for?
The disgraced Democrat was charged with illegally using nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from two wealthy donors — heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Texas lawyer Fred Baron — to hide his extramarital affair with videographer Rielle Hunter. Mellon sent Edwards $725,000 in checks, and Baron chipped in another six figures — both amounts well above legal campaign contribution limits. Edwards was also accused of filing false financial disclosure reports.
What did the jury decide — and fail to decide?
Prosecutors argued that the funds were used as a political donation to further Edwards' presidential ambitions, while the former senator's lawyers said the money was a gift used to hide the affair and subsequent love child from his then-dying wife, Elizabeth. Any way you look at it, Edwards' sordid mess "does not make one like him very much," says Amy Davidson at The New Yorker. "The question for the jury was whether it made him a criminal." In the case of $200,000 from Mellon, the jury said no. On the other five counts, the jurors couldn't decide.
Why couldn't the government prove its case?
This case involved deciphering whether Edwards was primarily driven by personal or political motives. "When you have to get into mind-reading, that's a hard case to make," former federal prosecutor Marcellus McRae tells USA Today. Adding to the ambiguity, says Emily Bazelon at Slate, the legal definition of a campaign contribution is maddeningly vague: "Anything of value provided for the purpose of influencing the presidential election," not including gifts that "would have been made irrespective of the candidacy." After Edwards was indicted, the Federal Elections Commission released an audit of his campaign that treated the Mellon and Baron money as for personal use, undermining the Justice Department's central argument. And on top of it all, neither of the millionaire donors was able to testify in court: Mellon is now 101, and Baron is dead.
Will Edwards be retried?
The Justice Department hasn't officially responded to the verdict, but an unidentified source said a new trial is very unlikely. "The facts aren't going to change; the law isn't going to change," agrees McRae. "Why should the outcome change?" Still, Judge Eagle has set a hearing on the matter for June 14.
What's next for Edwards?
Assuming the Justice Department drops the case, Edwards is free to do whatever he wants. He "could have faced 30 years in jail," notes The New Yorker's Davidson. "Now he won't even lose his law license." Edwards himself broached the topic on the courthouse steps, suggesting he might devote himself to helping poor children. "I don't think God's through with me," he said. "I'm not buying a bit of it," says Jo-Ann Armao at The Washington Post. God may not be done with this total phony, "but I certainly hope America is."
Was justice served?
Yes, "the jury in the John Edwards case rendered exactly the right verdict," says Alan Dershowitz at CNN. "No rational person" could have reached a clear verdict without getting inside the minds of Edwards and "several other actors in this political soap opera." Well, "I suppose I should cheer the sputtering end to this trial, since charging Edwards always meant stretching the law," says Slate's Bazelon, but I can't. With all the money sloshing around freely in this election cycle, "it was a small relief to imagine that someone, somewhere, could still get smacked for crossing the legal line." Certainly "it's a wholly unsatisfying verdict," says the Chicago Tribune in an editorial. But this reality show is over: "Let's not bother with Season 2."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- Ferguson riots were terrible — but this racist reaction was worse
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
- Don't argue about politics this Thanksgiving. Just don't.
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- The slippery slope of Twitter's attempts to stop harassment against women
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
- How to survive a spaceship disaster
Subscribe to the Week