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05.26.11

John Edwards Indictment Preview

The Justice Department is reportedly on the brink of indicting John Edwards for campaign-finance violations. Daniel Stone breaks down the case, the charges, and Edwards’s worst-case scenario.

It’s been a rough few days for John Edwards, the former presidential candidate turned possible criminal defendant. The Department of Justice revealed this week it was moving toward a criminal indictment of Edwards for violating election law, specifically using campaign money to support his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and their child together. Edwards’s lawyer has maintained his client’s innocence. The Daily Beast quizzed some experts on the legal questions, and Edwards’s worst-case scenario.

Why is this a criminal case?

Statue violations for John Smith would probably end with a plea deal that includes community service, a fine, or some public punishment like the confiscation of licenses. But John Edwards could be facing jail time. Why? It may simply be a matter of the high profile of the case, says Jonathan Turley, a criminal-defense attorney and George Washington University law professor. “Prosecutors tend to be very press conscious and feel an obligation to satisfy a public. There are cases where the high-profile defendant gets more attention from prosecutors. This is one of those cases.”

What are the charges against Edwards?

Considering the salacious case—campaign money, a mistress, a secret love child—the charges against Edwards will be rather banal. The obvious allegation is that he used large sums of money that were campaign donations for personal use, and to support Hunter, the mother of his child. From there, there may be several collateral charges, including the oft-mentioned “ 18 USC 1001,” which prohibits lying to investigators. But the actual legal arguments wouldn’t be made-for-TV-style drama. The case is likely to turn on dry questions like “What constitutes a legal contribution?” and “What satisfies level of intent?”

Does Edwards have the upper hand?

Probably not. Defense cases generally get worse over time, mostly because memories can’t stand up over the years. The main accusations stem from Edwards’s 2008 campaign, which was three years ago but decades away in Edwards’s slow-motion fall, which included a messy tell-all book from former campaign aide Andrew Young. Prosecutors will also be relying on old records and witnesses. But based solely on the fact that Justice Dept. prosecutors are considering a criminal case reveals they likely have enough compelling evidence to make it worth their time.

What’s the worst-case scenario facing Edwards?

The former senator could end up behind bars, but prosecutors have indicated they’d rather just have Edwards plead guilty to a felony. The problem with that, however, is that he’d have to give up his law license at a time when Edwards is desperate to revive his career and his legacy, and has talked publicly about starting a public-interest law firm. If he’d rather press his luck and risk jail time, odds are it wouldn’t be for long. Edwards would be a first offender who, yes, abused his power, but also led a life of public service. On top of that, a judge may be sympathetic to the fact that he has already paid dearly with his reputation, and there is no single identifiable victim in the case to draw empathy.

Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.