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The Edwards Circus Leaves Town

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The case of United States v. John Edwards has come to an end. The jury acquitted Edwards on the principal charge of accepting an illegal campaign contribution from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon in 2008, and deadlocked on the remaining charges; a mistrial was declared. The case continues the long string of embarrassing reversals for the Justice Department’s public-integrity prosecutors. It is, as Andrew Sullivan notes, a “victory for common sense” in the face of prosecutorial flim-flam.

The outcome is particularly striking because the circumstances could not have been more favorable to the prosecutors. They targeted a man who is probably the most reviled politician in America. The judge handling the case, Catherine Eagles, initially cautioned prosecutors against playing to the emotions of the jurors, then permitted them to do exactly that, allowing evidence of emotional confrontations between Edwards and the wife he had betrayed—evidence that could easily have fueled a daytime soap opera, but had no place in a federal courtroom. Judge Eagles also blocked Edwards from presenting expert evidence on the proper construction of election-finance laws, allowing federal prosecutors to proceed unchallenged on the issue. That ruling rested on the view that federal election law was so clear that any person of normal intelligence could read and understand it—a proposition that no one who knows anything about the subject would agree is correct. Clearly, the stage was laid for a conviction. The prosecutors failed to get one because their case was built on emotion and lacked substantive merit, which was ultimately clear to enough of the jurors to block it from going forward.

From the opening hours of the trial until the late controversies about a juror “flirting” with Edwards, the case featured a stream of offenses against the decorum and dignity of federal courts. In Hollywood portraits, such conduct is usually tied to grandstanding defense counsel, but in this case the defense was curiously passive and the buffoonery was the preserve of prosecutors.

With a mistrial decision, the Justice Department has the option of bringing the case back to another jury. Given the facts, such a decision could only be motivated by spite and would surely lead to further humiliation. The Justice Department is surely not that foolish. It should cut its losses and make a full disclosure of the millions it has squandered on this juvenile escapade.

Only one man has plainly benefited from the Edwards prosecution: former U.S. Attorney George Holding, who used the case to launch his political career. The Edwards trial was dominating the local news as Holding clinched a G.O.P nomination. He is now the odds-on favorite to represent North Carolina’s thirteenth district in the next Congress.

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