Meanwhile, the Justice Department has for the past four years been buffeted about in a series of high-profile, politically-charged cases. The Barry Bonds obstruction case didn't work out as well as the feds had hoped. The first Roger Clemens obstruction trial ended in a mistrial. And just last week the feds announced, after a lengthy internal investigation, that they had punished two prosecutors who withheld evidence from defense lawyers in the prosecution of Ted Stevens, the former senior senator from Alaska.
When you try a man in 2012 for white-collar conduct which occurred in 2008, and when the intervening years are marked by political and constitutional changes that make the relevant laws even more toothless than they already were, you are just asking for trouble. Federal prosecutors were just asking for trouble by pushing the Edwards case. And trouble is what they found. You don't have to have a shred of respect for Edwards -- and you probably don't -- to appreciate what a waste of precious time and energy this case has been.
IN THE END
After nine days of deliberations, the jury of eight women and four men was evidently just as vexed and unpersuaded by the government's evidence against Edwards as were two of the former chairmen of the Federal Election Commission, defense witnesses both, who were prepared to testify at trial that the donations Edwards received were not illegal. The trial judge refused to allow the bulk of this testimony to reach jurors -- which would likely have generated a live issue for appeal had Edwards been convicted -- but it didn't matter.
Nor did it matter that government attorneys tried so hard to make Andrew Young, their star witness, a credible tribune to the conspiracy. After weeks of testimony, with so much of the attorneys' focus upon Young, do you know what the jurors asked for first when they finally got to deliberate? It was nothing to do with Young. It was instead records and other written evidence relating to one of the donations. The jury wasn't willing to convict Edwards based on Young's story. He was in essence a bad star witness -- something prosecutors had every reason to believe he would be.
Indeed, whatever else it means, the mistrial is another courtroom embarrassment for the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder, who won't file criminal charges in the big cases people are talking about (like Wall Street fraud) but who evidently can't get his line attorneys to succeed in these picayune cases no one wants to see brought. That's a bad combination for a justice department, any justice department, because it suggests both a lack of value in prosecutorial priorities and a lack of trial competence. If you aren't going to fight the big ones, you have to land the little ones.
And that's what John Edwards is today, even more so than when this trial first began. A man diminished. Sure, he's just avoided a big fine and the potential of a few months in a minimum-security federal prison (the idea that he would have served hard time here is preposterous). But the trial revealed and chronicled the grim, infuriating details of Edwards' many deceptions more honestly and earnestly than we'd previously known. There is now an official record of all of it -- for his historians to cull through when they render their own future verdicts about this crown prince of squandered opportunities.