John Edwards's Crime and Punishment

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By Margaret Carlson

The one-time golden boy of U.S. politics, former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, saw a little bit of his luck return today as he slipped the noose at his trial for violating campaign finance laws.

On the ninth day of deliberations, the jury announced it could only reach a verdict on one of six counts, finding him not guilty on what had come to be called "The Bunny Money" charge. (Wealthy heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon had smuggled money, in boxes of chocolates, to Edwards in 2008 so that he would be able to have all the expensive haircuts he wanted.)

The judge sent the jury back for more deliberations on the remaining counts, but it proved futile. A mistrial was declared.

Edwards had been charged with 6 counts of violating campaign finance laws, a result of funneling donors' money into a sloppy effort to maintain -- and hide -- his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter. If convicted on all counts, he could have gone to prison for 30 years -- an extraordinary penalty for violating laws that are variously subverted or ignored.

It's doubtful the Justice Department will bring the charges anew. The Feds always faced a tough task leveraging a tawdry affair into criminal violations of campaign law.

The courtroom had a carnival atmosphere thanks in part to the antics of 4 alternate jurors who arrived each morning in color-coordinated outfits. One appeared to flirt openly with Edwards.

She is a rare creature. According to an April CBS News/New York Times poll, only 3 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Edwards. Other than running for president, poll respondents said the first thing that came to mind about Edwards was his cheating on his wife.

Edwards's life has been a roller coaster of soaring success and sinking tragedy. In addition to the public dissolution of his marriage to Elizabeth Edwards, who died of cancer in December, 2010, the couple previously lost their teenage son in a car accident.

At the courthouse, Edwards's daughter, Cate, was a constant presence by his side, lending him a measure of dignity and giving him a hug as he emerged from his ordeal. In the end, jurors may have concluded there is simply no punishment that fits his crime.

(Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)


-0- May/31/2012 22:01 GMT