Local Politics

Murky campaign laws made Edwards case difficult

Posted June 14, 2012

John Edwards makes a brief statement outside the Greensboro federal courthouse on May 31, 2012, after a jury acquitted him on one camapign finance fraud charge and a mistrial was declared on five other charges against him

— The government faced a number of problems in trying to prosecute John Edwards, such as key witnesses that weren't credible and a lack of clear evidence, according to legal experts.

Forty-five pages of confusing jury instructions that attempted to translate election law into lay language also played a role in a jury acquitting Edwards, a former U.S. senator and two-time presidential candidate, on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions and deadlocking on the five other charges against him, said Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University.

"Campaign finance laws by their nature are murky. They're written to be murky, and they are very fungible, and you're supposed to sponge them to get out of them as much as you can," Joyner said Thursday. "But when you start talking about the criminal law, you're looking for something that's clear, concise, to the point."

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles dismissed the five remaining charges on Wednesday after prosecutors said they don't plan to retry Edwards.

"It's difficult to frame in a clear manner laws that are ambiguous," Joyner said. "Then, you take laws that are ambiguous, and you attempt to expand the scope of those, and to explain that to lay people is always a very difficult thing to do."

A federal grand jury indicted Edwards a little over a year ago on charges that he used nearly $1 million provided by two wealthy donors – Virginia heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron – to keep his mistress, Rielle Hunter, quiet and away from the media in the run-up to the 2008 presidential primaries.

In five days of testimony during the month-long trial, former Edwards aide Andrew Young detailed schemes in which Mellon funneled money through a Charlotte interior decorator to him and his wife to pay for Hunter's expenses and in which Baron paid for charter planes and resort accommodations as Hunter and the Young family hopscotched across the country to evade tabloid newspaper reporters.

John Edwards case graphic Prof: Confusing law didn't help government's case against Edwards

Young admitted under cross-examination, however, that he and his wife spent much of the money from Mellon and Baron on a house they were building near Chapel Hill and other personal expenses.

Edwards' lawyers argued that the money was gifts to help Edwards hide his affair with Hunter from his cancer-stricken wife and that the issue should have been addressed, if at all, by the Federal Elections Commission and not through a criminal investigation.

"I think the biggest problem was trying to transform a civil election law issue into a criminal law matter," Joyner said. "The evidence didn't support the criminal law aspect that they were trying to promote."

In hindsight, he said, the case never should have been brought in the first place, and it makes sense that the government has ended any attempt to retry it.

"It was a waste, and what we can learn is that we need to more carefully scrutinize actions to prosecute people criminally for things that are murky," he said. "If it's a dead body there, then that's a different situation than trying to make the prosecution fit the political ambition, and in this case, I think the government was guilty of getting caught up in the political motivation."


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  • discowhale Jun 15, 2012

    What made it 'murky' was that he found the loop holes, and they knew before they started that it was not going to be easy to prove.

    I'm no lover of this miscreant, quite the opposite in fact, but they should never tried to go to court on what they had. It's just more wasted money!

  • superman Jun 15, 2012

    Would it be legal for Mr. Edwards to give a nice trip or car to each member of the jury? A 5th grader could have written a better law.

  • ConservativeVoter Jun 15, 2012

    "IMHO, the government thought that the jury would be so incensed at the moral “crimes” committed by Mr. Edwards that they would make the quantum leap to a conviction of the campaign finance laws.

    Wooly think, guys ….

    An IMMENSE waste of taxpayers (read: yours and mine) money.

    STS - SailbadTheSinner"

    Scary thing is that Brad Cooper and Jason Young got convicted on less evidence than was presented in the John Edwards trial, yet Edwards walked away a free man.

    Like Edwards said, there are two Americas. One that he lives in and the one that the rest of us live in.

  • ConservativeVoter Jun 15, 2012

    The problem with campaign finance laws is that they are written by the politicians that the laws are supposed to regulate.

    The politicians write the laws so that they can do whatever they want to without fear of prosecution.

    The campaign finance laws said that Edwards must have known he was breaking the law to be convicted under the law.

    Therefore Edwards said he didn't know he was breaking the law and he couldn't be convicted.

    If traffic laws were like campaign finance laws, you would just tell the policeman that you didn't know you were breaking the law when you were caught doing 50 in a 30. Since you didn't know you were breaking the law, the policeman couldn't give you a ticket.

  • SailbadTheSinner Jun 14, 2012

    IMHO, the government thought that the jury would be so incensed at the moral “crimes” committed by Mr. Edwards that they would make the quantum leap to a conviction of the campaign finance laws.

    Wooly think, guys ….

    An IMMENSE waste of taxpayers (read: yours and mine) money.


  • Objective Scientist Jun 14, 2012

    Murky? That is the understatement of the year! Maybe the decade or longer! I've repeatedly said that one outcome of this trial, an outcome that would make the trial "worth it", would be for that "murky" law to be clarified! ANY/ALL contributions of money, services, use of a plane, use of a house, etc., etc. for the purpose of "hiding" a mistress - indeed any behavior of the candidate - that could lead to the candidate losing support/votes (no matter the circumstances with a spouse)from the electorate MUST be considered a CAMPAIGN contribution!!! REWRITE this murky law!!! Candidates have entirely TOO MUCH "flexibility" with campaign funds.