Former North Carolina senator John Edwards was found not guilty of a single charge of breaking campaign finance law even as a judge declared a mistrial on the other five counts brought against him in connection with payments made to a former mistress during his 2008 run for president. That muddled decision offered neither the exoneration for which he hoped nor the stinging judgment for which his many detractors had pined.
The circumstances surrounding today’s verdict were as strange as the trial itself. After declaring that they had reached a verdict on the six counts, it became clear that the jury had settled on a judgment on only one of the counts. The judge asked that the jury try to find unanimity on the other five counts, which included conspiracy and other charges of campaign finance irregularity. They were unable to do so — and a mistrial was declared.
(That wacky set of events followed the dismissal of an alternate juror who was known as the “Lady in Red”. And, no, we didn’t make that up.)
The lack of clarity in the decision rendered Thursday almost certainly will keep the sordid details of Edwards’ attempts to cover up his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter in the news for a while longer. The Justice Department will now be tasked with deciding whether to retry the case, which many legal experts cast as dubious on the merits, or to simply walk away from it.
Regardless of what they decide, the damage has been done — and then some — to Edwards. While neither Edwards nor Hunter took the stand in the case, the month-long trial amounted to a painful re-litigation of Edwards’ attempts to cover up his relationship with Hunter and the daughter their tryst produced. As the Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote of the trial: “Edwards was portrayed by a parade of witnesses as a scheming and manipulative politician.”
Edwards was far from the only one to emerge from the trial looking worse. Andrew Young, the one-time Edwards aide who agreed to say he and Hunter were having an affair and that the child produced was his, came across a rank opportunist who had reaped significant financial rewards from his re-telling of his role in the affair. (Young has written a book about the events.)
As we wrote when the trial started, the legal implications of the proceedings — and verdict — seemed almost secondary to the desire on the part of the public to subject Edwards to a final, public shaming.
After all, this was a man who had cheated on his terminally ill wife, lied repeatedly about it and was then, finally, forced to acknowledge his deceptions before his wife, Elizabeth, passed away.
The public wanted to exact a measure of revenge on Edwards. Edwards, as he himself would almost certainly acknowledge, had already seen his future political ambitions destroyed. There was very little left to take from Edwards but his moral crimes were such that many people hoped that the jury would try to do it.
Like most attempts at revenge, however, this one almost certainly left both parties feeling cold.
Yes, Edwards avoided jail time — unless and until the Department of Justice decides whether to re-try him. But the public flogging he received over the past month clearly negatively affected him — and left scars that won’t quickly heal.
For most everybody else, the condemnation of Edwards that they wanted didn’t come. A mistrial ensures a postponement — if not an abandonment — of a chance to pass unquestioned judgment on what Edwards did.
By the end of the trial, the prevailing public sentiment had even begun to shift from one desirous of revenge to one eager to end this whole sordid tale.
Unfortunately, today’s ruling does neither. And that’s a defeat for everyone touched — directly or indirectly — by the Edwards scandal.