“I think it’s a very difficult area in the law, and there was just so much background noise in this case, such difficult witness issues, that it’s frankly not surprising to me that this is where they ended up,” says Peter Zeidenberg, a former Public Integrity Section prosecutor who now works for white-collar defendants in Washington. Given that, “I think that they obviously miscalculated the strength of this case.”
To be sure, in announcing the charges last year, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer came out swinging, declaring the case was about “campaign integrity.” And by most accounts, prosecutors handled the long, complex trial itself with aplomb and professionalism, helped along by favorable rulings from Judge Catherine Eagles. And more generally, the difference between a foolish exercise of discretion in bringing a losing case and a conviction on the part of courageous prosecutors can be whisper-thin even in the best of cases.
But for DOJ campaign investigators reeling from the fallout from the botched prosecution of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, where a judge threw out a guilty verdict after finding out that the government withheld exculpatory evidence, the rubble of the Edwards verdict holds some key lessons, legal analysts say.
One of the central ones is that the prosecution was faced with trying a unique case where the jurors, in one sense, were among the victims – in other words, defrauded voters. “If the public is the victim, then the jurors are victims, too, and they could basically say, ‘I don’t care, that happened three, four, five years ago,’ ” Mr. Zeidenberg says. What’s more, given that the Federal Election Commission had decided not to sanction Edwards, the prosecution had few clear legal precedents for trying Edwards.