Should the federal government of the United States be able to tell you how much money your friends can give you? That, more than anything, appears to be the issue at the center of the John Edwards corruption trial.
It seems there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what John Edwards was actually being charged with. He was not being charged with having an affair (although he did and fathered a child as well) and it’s not actually illegal to hide an affair using campaign money, so long as that campaign money was received legitimately. Legitimately is a key word here; individuals are allowed to contribute up to $2,300 to a campaign. Edwards is actually being charged with accepting too much money from two of his donors.
Edwards’ defense was that he would have gotten that money regardless of whether or not he was actually running a campaign, so it wasn’t actually a campaign contribution. His lawyers argued that he wasn’t trying to hide the affair from the public, he was really just trying to keep it a secret from his wife.
Edwards’ argument is probably a lie, but the fact is, the government really can’t prove what exactly he was thinking at the time. The book “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, portrays Edwards’ wife Elizabeth as a volatile and often very angry woman. It’s not impossible that he may have genuinely been scared about her finding out about the length and breadth of the affair.
Admittedly, Edwards probably wanted to keep the affair secret from the public too, but here’s the thing: we don’t know. We can’t know. Edwards’ thoughts are his own and it’s not the government’s job to try to determine what those thoughts actually are. If there’s any reason to believe he’s actually telling the truth – and I think there is – then that’s reasonable doubt, and he should be found not guilty.
That’s exactly what happened. As many of you probably already know, John Edwards was recently found not guilty of one criminal charge, and a mistrial was declared on the other five counts. There is significant discussion about whether or not he should be retried. This discussion is, quite frankly, foolish. John Edwards may be a scumbag, but he’s not a criminal.
Getting into speculation about what Edwards’ motivations were at the time masks the bigger issue in this trial: the laws themselves are unjust. Even if Edwards got the money with the intention of keeping his affair secret from the public, is there really a reason for that to be illegal? Is there really a reason that the government needs to spend time and money to put him in a cage?
This money was not stolen, no one is arguing that. By all accounts, Edwards’ donors gave this money to him willingly. There’s no indication that there was ever a quid pro quo either. These donors were self-described friends of Edwards who wanted to support his campaign. If they wanted to give him more than $2,300, why shouldn’t they be able to?
In a trial, we often focus too much on whether or not someone is guilty. That sounds obvious, but why don’t we focus more on whether or not the laws themselves are just? Is there really a pressing need to put someone in jail because they spent too much campaign money (Edwards), lied to the FBI (Rod Blagojevich) or smoked marijuana recreationally (too many to name)?
The simple fact is, we put far too many people in prison in this country for things that really don’t matter. Edwards may be a scumbag, but he’s a scumbag who didn’t really hurt anyone. And if he didn’t hurt anyone, what right do we have to put him in a cage?
The answer is simple: we don’t have that right. The prosecution needs to drop this mummer’s farce while they still can.
Joshua Madden is a non-degree seeking graduate student. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org