Alan Dershowitz makes a compelling case in a CNN op-ed essay that the jury in the John Edwards criminal trial got it right when they failed to reach a verdict on most charges. As he sees the case,
The judge essentially instructed them to get into John Edwards’ mind (as well as into the minds of several other actors in this political soap opera) and to determine precisely what his intention was in receiving money from friends….If [Edwards’] intention was primarily personal (to try to save his marriage and not humiliate his wife any further), then there was no crime. But if his intent was primarily political (to help him get elected president), then there may have been a crime. Precisely how many angels were dancing on the head of that pin?
This may be an example of a case that reads one way in the media and another in the courtroom. Like many other observers, I assumed this was a straightforward case of soliciting campaign contributions illegally. That political context for the case was the obvious one from my vantage point, but in retrospect, I have to admit I hadn’t thought about the personal explanation as relevant. As Dershowitz argues, the judge gave the jury a task even trained social scientists couldn’t handle–the reading of intentions in a situation fraught with ambiguity. And as for Edwards’ fate? Dershowitz writes,
Let him be relegated to his deserved place in history, and let us reserve the criminal law for real felons who knowingly violate clear criminal statutes. If Congress wants to criminalize what Edwards was accused of doing, let it enact a clear law that gives fair warning to all politicians that they may not accept any gifts, regardless of intent. I doubt Congress will pass such a law.