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Time to close the lab on the John Edwards experiment

June 01, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • John Edwards addresses the media alongside daughter Cate Edwards and his parents Wallace and Bobbie Edwards.
John Edwards addresses the media alongside daughter Cate Edwards and his… (Sara D. Davis / Getty Iamges )

To retry or not to retry. That is the question for federal prosecutors after the dusky verdict in the John Edwards trial. The answer, according to a report in USA Today, is that the toothsome and well-coiffed former North Carolina senator will be spared another courtroom ordeal.

That’s probably the correct and prudential decision following Edwards’ acquittal on one count and a hung jury on five others.  It’s possible that a different jury might convict Edwards on the  charges  that stymied this one, but  it seems more likely that the evidence that left this (apparently conscientious) jury underwhelmed would produce a similar result the next time around. The Justice Department should execute a strategic retreat and save Treasury some money.

That doesn’t mean that the original prosecution was frivolous.  In the macro sense, money paid to conceal Edwards’ affair with videographer-cum-baby-mama Rielle Hunter could be said to benefit his political campaign. In her now famous 2007 letter to Edwards confidant Andrew Young, elderly heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon wrote: “From now on, all haircuts, etc., that are necessary and important for his campaign — please send the bills to me — it’s a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”

 The jury deadlocked on whether payments from Mellon in 2007 violated campaign-spending laws, but acquitted Edwards on a count involving a $200,000 check Mellon wrote for him in January 2008, the month he left the race for the Democratic presidential nomination that ultimately was won by Barack Obama.

Should the government have anticipated this result and forgone prosecution of Edwards? That’s an easy call in retrospect. John Updike once wrote that "each life wears its events with a geological inevitability" and the same is true of the Edwards trial. But I wouldn’t trash the Justice Department for proceeding in the first place.  One dictionary definition of “trial” is “an instance of  . . .  testing, especially as part of a series of tests or experiments.” The government dutifully carried out its legal experiment; it’s time to close the laboratory.

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