After learning how much was lacking in John Edwards — lack of character, lack of what we need in a leader and, more personally, in a husband and father, lack of a certain kind of humanity — his criminal trial came down to a lack of evidence. After nine days of deliberations, the jury couldn't convict on any of the counts Edwards was being charged of. They handed down a verdict of not guilty on one count, illegally accepting the campaign contribution from Bunny Mellon in 2008. As for the remaining five felony charges, the judge declared a mistrial. Experts say a retrial is unlikely.
How is it that we get to a place like this, where a man is publicly widely censured, even by himself, and yet, in the end, is found to have done nothing "wrong"—or nothing wrong enough to be convicted of a crime? (He was facing a possible jail term of 30 years, and significant financial penalties, if found guilty.) Simple: The jury said this was a matter of evidence. According to one of the jurors, a group of whom appeared on Good Morning America today,
"I felt like the evidence just wasn't there," said juror Theresa Fuller, a heat press operator. "It could have been more. It could have been a lot more than what it was."
The jurors with whom ABC News spoke believed the prosecution had not made its case, but said there was a small group of holdouts convinced of Edwards' guilt.
Of course, this had been widely considered "a lousy case" in the first place; now, writes Politico's Josh Gerstein, it's more of an embarrassment to the Justice Department than to Edwards himself. Among those who have been saying it was a weak case, count Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law; campaign finance lawyer and onetime consultant to the Edwards' team, Ken Gross; and Melanie Sloan, executive director for the campaign finance watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
When Edwards' trial over alleged campaign finance violations began more than a month ago, I wrote a post about how the undertaking, which brought the disgraced former politician into the spotlight again, simply served to remind us of the man he wasn't. Not a good husband to his dying wife. Not particularly good to his mistress, Rielle Hunter, whom he called a "crazy slut" and hid away so as to "protect" his wife. Not a good dad, considering what he put his family through, and how he denied that his daughter with Hunter, Quinn, was his own. (Cate Edwards, who's been loyally standing next to her old man the whole time throughout the trial, may be the most tragic figure in this drama.) Nor could Edwards be considered a particularly good politician, or even a good lawyer, and certainly not a good presidential contender.
Perhaps most relevant to the actual trial, he was also not good to his donors, who gave him money that was used to hide his affair and baby away from his wife (and, as alleged by the government in their failed case, the public, so that his affair wouldn't impact their possible vote for him for president).
But after yesterday's verdict, Edwards will enter the annals of people who've done an "awful, awful lot that was wrong" yet have not been convicted for their crimes. Cases like these serve to remind us that there's a difference between a trial of character and a trial of legal wrongdoing. As Sloan told ABC News, "All the salacious details prosecutors offered up to prove that Edwards is, indeed, despicable, were not enough to persuade the jury to convict him."
In the arena of what you might call the trial of character, The New York Post has a list of the "10 Most Hated People in America" that includes a few of Edwards' ilk in terms of not being guilty in the eyes of the law: Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson. The list includes another man who has not been tried but has already been widely publicly censured: Jerry Sandusky, as well as a man who has been tried and found guilty, Bernie Madoff. Plus, weirdly, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, who are guilty of, we suppose, being themselves. But the Post goes even further than this list to punish Edwards. So we get the cover above: "STILL GUILTY" (of being a terrible, terrible human), and an Andrea Peyser column focused on the man "whose picture could illustrate a dictionary entry for depraved human scum," she writes, concluding her piece with the evocative note, "one day soon, John Edwards will burn." Meanwhile, Tara Palmeri, who has been covering the trial itself for the Post, has a piece titled "Slimeball Edwards Gets Off—and Hints at a Comeback."
But back in 2000, following news of Rudy Giuliani's affair with Judy Nathan, Peyser told Slate's William Saletan that what matters in cases of public infidelity "is the way one behaves when confronted with his or her actions." It seems that her statutes for forgiveness have changed, or perhaps apply differently, depending on the man. Or Edwards just didn't behave the right way, even in his mushy, gushy apology outside the courtroom Thursday.
When it came time for Edwards to speak — not quite vindicated but not quite demonized — his molasses-y Southern speech evoking God and talking about helping kids seemed a bunch of hooey, put on for show just as much as pretty much everything else about the man and, back in the day, his political campaign. It was almost amusing, if gratingly so, to hear him gush so about his family and his "precious Quinn," the baby he denied was his own back when things were getting hot in 2008. Could this man, who expressed a desire yesterday to help the impoverished children of the world, to do the work that God wanted him to, really have changed so much?
At the same time, you have to admit, he's following in the footsteps of many a politician who's admitted wrongdoing, apologized in his most heartfelt manner (authentic or not), and gone on to stage something of a return to the public world. It would be truly ironic if this trial ended up being the thing to bring Edwards out of his reportedly sad, sequestered existence in his North Carolina home and out into the public yet again. But stranger things have happened.