Anatomy Of A Failure: Critics Say John Edwards Trial Was Doomed From The Outset

They can’t say they weren’t warned.

Critics of the Justice Department’s case against John Edwards — and there were plenty — who said the prosecution was flawed from the very beginning, uttered a collective “we told you so” on Thursday, when the case fell apart after jurors were unable to reach a verdict on five counts in his trial on campaign finance charges.

Jurors interviewed by ABC News said the majority who believed Edwards was not guilty on all counts were unable to convince the minority of jurors who believed he was.

“As noted by nearly every campaign finance lawyer who considered the matter, this was a lousy case,” Melanie Sloan, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said in a statement. “All the salacious details prosecutors offered up to prove that Edwards is, indeed, despicable, were not enough to persuade the jury to convict him.”

Kirkland & Ellis partner W. Neil Eggleston told the Blog of Legal Times that the case never should have been brought in the first place.“I think that the law is not at all clear, at least to me, that these contributions were campaign contributions as opposed to money to hide an extramarital affair,” Eggleston told the publication. “These didn’t fit in the statute.”

“It was a real stretch,” Peter Zeidenberg, formerly a prosecutor in DOJ’s Public Integrity Section, told Politico. “Given his situation, since the guy was pretty much a beaten man already, I don’t see the point of bringing such a nominal prosecution in these circumstances.”

Even if the Justice Department is unlikely to bring another case which stretches campaign finance law so broadly, the outcome of the Edwards case leaves those legal questions unanswered.

“I don’t think we get a whole lot out of it in terms of interpretations of campaign finance law,” Michael Rich of Elon University School told TPM. “I think the most obvious reading of the jury’s decision is that if there is no campaign there can be no violation of campaign finance law… but it doesn’t give us much of an answer on how they viewed the definition of campaign contributions.”

“Because we had a mistrial here, we’re never going to have a circuit court ruling on the jury instructions that the judge gave to the jury,” Rich said.

The Edwards trial represented another failure for DOJ’s Public Integrity Section, which had been trying to rebuild itself ever since the botched prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, a case in which federal prosecutions engaged in what an independent review found was the “systematic concealment” of exculpatory evidence against the late Alaska Republican.

Bringing up the unit’s failures was part of Edwards’ defense strategy. Lawyers questioned why DOJ didn’t go after former Sen. John Ensign, whose former aide recently reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Edwards argued that the case was politically motivated — the former U.S. Attorney who brought it forward won his GOP primary race last month — and said the Obama administration didn’t have the guts to kill the prosecution when it should have.

Jack Smith, the head of the Public Integrity Section, told the New York Times that the high-profile failures weren’t representative of his section’s work.

“We’re trying more cases than ever before in the section, and winning more than ever,” Mr. Smith said. “Over all, we are effectively litigating cases and going to court more, which is what people expect our section to do. We are doing cases all around the country.”