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."
Associated Press writer Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck