More than two years of investigation and a six-week trial subjected the actions of presidential candidate John Edwards in 2007 and 2008 to unsparing scrutiny, revealing such intimate details as the likely conception date of his out-of-wedlock daughter and a hotel scene of his mistress in her nightie.
But one aspect of the case remains unexplained: Why was it brought as a long and costly criminal case rather than as a civil matter for the Federal Election Commission?
George Holding, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina and now a Republican candidate for Congress, initiated the investigation more than three years ago. He acted after reports surfaced that Edwards had used money from two supporters to hide his pregnant mistress during his run for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
Near the end of the probe, the Edwards defense team and federal prosecutors discussed a plea deal that fell apart in the 11th hour. The government then had to choose between turning the case over to the FEC for a civil review, or proceed with a criminal prosecution. The latter was chosen.
The charges that followed in June 2011 were dramatic with the former U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee indicted on six crimes and facing possible prison time and several million dollars in fines. But the resolution of those stark charges ended in cloudy ambivalence.
A jury deliberated for nine days and could not agree on whether Edwards committed a crime. Jurors acquitted him on one count of campaign finance charges and deadlocked on the five other felony counts.
The government has yet to say whether it will retry a case that some attorneys speculate cost at least $2 million to put before a jury. But many observers, including several jurors, say the trial exposed weaknesses unlikely to be overcome a second time around.
Cindy Aquaro, a special education teacher from Winston-Salem who served on the jury, said she thought the questions might have been better weighed by federal elections officials, not 12 jurors confused by the judges lengthy instructions. The jurors spent days in the Greensboro federal courthouse trying to determine whether any of the $900,000 from two wealthy donors could be considered a campaign donation.
There was one man on the jury who thought Edwards was guilty on every charge, Aquaro said, and others who thought he was not guilty of any charge and refused to change their opinions. Jurors said the majority favored acquittal on all counts.
Aquaro said she would not recommend retrying the case.
Not if theyre going to use the same evidence, she said.
Settling a score?
From the start there were allegations from the Edwards camp that he was a victim of political score settling. Holding, a Republican from Raleigh who announced his candidacy for a U.S. congressional seat from the 13th District just weeks after Edwards indictment, rode herd over a case that ultimately was tried in a different district from his own.
Edwards lawyers noted Holdings run for office in a 31-page memorandum in support of their September 2011 motion to dismiss the case. The memo also described Holdings role as a former staffer to Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, his campaign contributions to the Republican senate incumbent Edwards defeated, Lauch Faircloth, and Holdings time as a law clerk to Judge Terrence Boyle, a federal district court judge in the Eastern district whose nomination to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was blocked by Edwards.