RALEIGH, N.C. — Federal prosecutors dropped all charges Wednesday against John Edwards, triggering criticism that the year-long prosecution of the former presidential candidate was a waste of time and taxpayer money.

After a six-week trial in North Carolina, jurors acquitted Edwards May 31 on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions and deadlocked on five other felony counts. The judge declared a mistrial.

The U.S. Justice Department said in a court order that it will not seek to retry Edwards on the five unresolved counts.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who oversees the agency's criminal division, said prosecutors knew the case, like all campaign finance cases, would be challenging. But he said it is "our duty to bring hard cases" when warranted.

"Last month, the government put forward its best case against Mr. Edwards, and I am proud of the skilled and professional way in which our prosecutors.... conducted this trial," he said, adding that he respected the jury's judgment and decided not to seek a retrial "in the interest of justice."

Prosecutors accused Edwards, who turned 59 this week, of masterminding a scheme to use about $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy political donors to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. He would have faced up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.

At trial, the case against Edwards rested largely on the testimony of his former right-hand man, Andrew Young, who initially claimed paternity of his boss' baby and deposited most of the money at issue in the case into his family's personal accounts. But upon cross examination, Edwards' lawyers used inconsistencies from Young's past statements to undermine his credibility and used bank records to show the aide and his wife siphoned off much of the money to help build their $1.6 million dream home.

Several jurors said a clear majority within the group after deliberating nine days wanted to acquit Edwards on all charges.

"It was a weak case," Curtis Driggers, a juror from Ellerbe, told The Associated Press last week. "It was all on Andrew Young and he didn't carry much weight with me. If they don't have any more factual information than what they presented, I don't think any other jury would reach a different decision."

Prosecutors charged ahead despite a decision by the Federal Election Commission not to pursue a civil case against Edwards. Several campaign finance experts said that even if Edwards had known about the money flowing to his mistress, he wasn't violating the law.

Melanie Sloan, the executive director for the campaign watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the ex-North Carolina senator never should have been charged. No federal candidate had ever before been tried over payments from a third party that flowed to the politician's mistress.

"It was a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money," Sloan said. "Now maybe the Justice Department can get back to prosecuting people who actually broke the law."

A former trial lawyer, Edwards elected not testify at his six-week trial. His mistress, Rielle Hunter, also didn't take the stand.

Edwards' lawyers – Abbe Lowell, Allison Van Laningham and Alan W. Duncan – said in a joint statement that they are pleased with the government's decision not to seek a second trial that they believe would have had the same outcome.

"While John has repeatedly admitted to his sins, he has also consistently asserted, as we demonstrated at the trial, that he did not violate any campaign law nor even imagined that any campaign laws could apply," they said. "We are very glad that, after living under this cloud for over three years, John and his family can have their lives back and enjoy the peace they deserve."

Edwards, who lives in Chapel Hill, didn't comment on the dismissal and a spokesman for his lawyers said one would not be forthcoming.

In a brief statement on the courthouse steps two weeks ago after the conclusion of his trial, Edwards denied doing anything illegal but acknowledged he had done much that was wrong.

"There is no one else responsible for my sins," Edwards said, before expressing hope for his future. "I don't think God's through with me. I really believe he thinks there's still some good things I can do."

The trial exposed a sordid sex scandal that unfolded while Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer, including the most intimate details of his affair with Hunter. But despite recounting the salacious details of his family tragedy, legal experts said the government failed to prove Edwards knowingly violated campaign finance law.

Bruce Reinhart, a criminal defense attorney who was a federal prosecutor for 19 years, said the prosecution's theory in this case was "aggressive."

"I think they were trying to plow new ground, but I can't say they were wrong to bring the case," said Reinhart, who spent eight years in the Justice Department's public integrity section, which prosecuted Edwards. "Sometimes you have to bring tough cases, and tough cases are hard to win."

He said it spoke well of prosecutors that they dropped the case.

"It's always easier to take another shot and then blame the jury if the jury doesn't convict," Reinhart said. "It takes a lot of integrity to say `enough is enough and we're going to walk away.'"

From the start, lawyers for Edwards painted the prosecution as politically motivated. The investigation was originally spearheaded by George Holding, the then-U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Appointed by President George W. Bush, Holding made a name for himself with criminal probes of high profile Democrats, including the state's former governor. When President Barack Obama came into office, Holding managed to forestall being replaced by a Democrat for years while the Edwards investigation was ongoing. He eventually resigned in 2011 as Edwards was indicted and soon announced his candidacy for Congress, winning in the GOP primary last month.

The final decision to prosecute was made by the Obama administration and the DOJ's Public Integrity Section. Once highly admired, the section's reputation suffered after a corruption conviction against former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska was overturned in 2009 after it was found prosecutors knowingly concealed evidence and allowed false testimony to be presented at trial.

Holding said Wednesday he had no regrets and lauded the prosecutors in the section and the best in the Justice Department.

"You can't look in hindsight and figure out which case you should or shouldn't bring," Holding said. "The cases come to you and you have to make a decision based on the law and the facts that are presented to you at the time they come in."

After two years of public denials, Edwards announced he was the father of Hunter's baby, Francis Quinn Hunter, in January 2010. The girl is now 4 years old and lives with her mother in Charlotte. Last month, Edwards expressed his love for Quinn, who he described as precious.

Edwards' eldest daughter, Cate Edwards, reacted to Wednesday's decision through her Twitter account. She sat behind her father in the courtroom nearly every day of his lengthy trial.

"Big sigh of relief," Cate Edwards, 30, tweeted. "Ready to move forward with life."

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Associated Press writer Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck

Below, some background on Edwards' affair with Hunter unveiled in a 2010 GQ interview:
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  • Love At First Sight?

    "And when they left, my friend went over and asked Tony if that was John Edwards, and he said yes. And my friend turned to me and said, 'See, I told you it was John Edwards.' And then I came over to the table, and I said, 'I can't believe that was John Edwards; he's so hot. He's really got it going on. He's got something unusual about him, and I never would have recognized him.' And Tony said, 'Oh, my God, you should have come over and told him that. He would have loved to have heard that.'"

  • An Extraordinary Night

    "We had an extraordinary night, and I did know that this was unlike anything either of us had ever experienced. And as we have all learned, that was accurate! [laughs] He in fact did say to me the first night, 'Falling in love with you could really [screw] up my plans for becoming President.' And of course I said, 'If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.'"

  • The Oddest Connection He Had Ever Felt

    "Well, what Johnny later told me was, he went to dinner and could not stop thinking about me, like, 'Who was that woman, and why didn't I go over and talk to her?' ... So when he walked around the corner and saw me standing there, he lit up like a Christmas tree. And I thought his reaction when he saw me was just so cute. I mean, he looked like a little kid at Christmas. And I just uttered to him, 'You're so hot.' And he said, 'Why, thank you!' And he almost jumped into my arms. Literally. And um, that's how we met. On the corner of 61st and Park Avenue."

  • 'I Had To Sleep With Him'

    "I used to make a joke that I could have helped save the world, but I had to sleep with him. You know? It was kind of like that."

  • Falling In Love

    "I fell in love with Johnny ... He called me the next day. We talked on the phone almost every night for four hours. We met on February 21. On February 25—on the phone, from Davenport, Iowa—I fell in love with him. Head over heels in love. I was a goner."

  • Here's ... Johnny!

    "Isn't that funny? You know, when I first met him, the first week of our relationship, I said to him, 'For some reason I cannot call you John, it doesn't come out. Could I call you Johnny?' And he said, 'That's my name.' And I didn't know that, but that's his actual birth name."

  • Knight In Shining Armor?

    "I had this thing in my head like a lot of women, where you want your man to stand up on a cliff and scream, 'I LOVE HER.' You know, the knight in shining armor. And that wasn't what was going on."

  • On Her Relationship Status

    "I am not engaged."

  • Why She's Talking Now

    "I feel comfortable talking now, because Johnny went public and made a statement admitting paternity. I didn't feel like I could ever speak until he did that. Because had I spoken, I would have emasculated him. And I could not emasculate him. Also, it is not my desire to teach my daughter that when Mommy's upset with Daddy, you take matters into your own hands and fix Daddy's mistakes. Which I view as one of the biggest problems in all female-and-male relationships."

  • Not A Gold Digger

    "I mean, just for starters, I never 'hit on' Johnny. I'm not a predator, I'm not a gold digger, I'm not the stalker. I didn't have any power in that way in our relationship. He held all the power."

  • 'The Wrath Of Elizabeth Is A Mighty Wrath'

    "And I believe what happened in his marriage is, he could not go to his wife and say, 'We have an issue.' Because he would be pummeled. So he had a huge fear. Most of his mistakes or errors in judgment were because of his fear of the wrath of Elizabeth. He's allowed himself to be pushed into a lot of things that he wouldn't normally do because of Elizabeth's story line. And the spin that she wants to put out there. He was emasculated. And you know, the wrath of Elizabeth is a mighty wrath."

  • 'I Was A Bit Promiscuous'

    "I was never, as it's been reported, a drug addict. The word addiction means inability to stop. I stopped doing drugs in my twenties. As for being promiscuous, I would say that I was a bit promiscuous for about six months. But it was because I was partying, and there were a lot of very good-looking available 20-year-old men around that you'd be partying with, and there was a lot of, you know, hooking up going on."

  • A Toxic Relationship

    "[Elizabeth] was in denial about a lot of facts. And I say she was in denial because, you know, their relationship has been dysfunctional and toxic and awful for many, many years. And she was aware of, um, problems and chose to ignore them."

  • 'I Don't Really Believe He Was A Politician'

    "Well, I don't really believe he was a politician. I believe his ego and ambition drove him to that field. I believe he's more aligned with being a humanitarian. That suits his true nature. Just like I wasn't a mistress. You know, I'm not a mistress, but I played the role? I believe he played the role of a politician. It's not who he is. Being a politician was a path of transformation for him, I believe. It's not really what he was put on the planet to do."

  • Not A 'Home Wrecker'

    "And, well, first of all, infidelity doesn't happen in healthy marriages. The break in the marriage happens before the infidelity. And that break happened, you know, two and a half decades before I got there. So the home was wrecked already. I was not the Home Wrecker."

  • Naming Frances Quinn Hunter

    "Her name is Frances Quinn Hunter, and I love the name Frances. Johnny wasn't over the moon about Frances. So I was coming up with names, and Quinn is a name that I loved, and that was the only name that he thought was cool. And so I named her Quinn because Daddy really liked it."

  • Was Andrew Young In Love With Edwards?

    "Andrew [Young] was in love with Johnny...In love with him. Beyond. And I believe he loved Johnny more than he loved Cheri. So Johnny was the third person in their relationship. And I'm sure she hates Johnny, because Andrew took a lot of obvious actions that were for Johnny and not for Cheri. But Cheri went along with them. And they both have a way of spinning things. But a lot of their motivation is money."