Saturday, May 19, 2012

Similarities and Differences in the Trials of Ted Stevens and John Edwards


As we wait for the jury in the John Edwards trial, note  similarities and differences between that case and that of his former U.S. Senate colleague Ted Stevens.    Both men were respected attorneys and well-known figures on Capitol Hill whose close associations with unsavory characters led them to face charges in white-collar criminal cases prosecuted by the Justice Department's elite Public Integrity Section.   At each trial, the role of the defendant's wife in the defendant's actions was critical and much discussed by other witnesses.

There are obviously significant differences between the two cases.  The charges against Ted Stevens involved failure to report gifts and debts on Senate disclosure forms, while the federal government is prosecuting John Edwards for campaign finance violations.    And while the central figures in the  Stevens trial (Ted Stevens and his close friend and benefactor Bill Allen, long-time CEO of VECO) each spent days on the witness stand, the key players in the Edwards trial (John Edwards and his former mistress Rielle Hunter) never testified.

Defendants in criminal cases of course have an absolute right not to testify, so the decisions to put Ted Stevens on the stand and keep John Edwards off were all those of the defense.   Stevens' testimony on his own behalf turned out to be a disaster for the defense on every level, an experience that would have gone on the "No" side of the ledger when the  Edwards team was trying to figure out whether the defendant should take the oath in front of the jury.

By contrast, in both trials the choices not to call as a witness those former intimates of the defendants were critical decisions for both the prosecution and the defense.   Bill Allen and Rielle Hunter were dangerous and unpredictable witnesses for both sides.  The prosecution took the risk of calling Allen in the Stevens trial, while neither side was willing to take the chance of putting Hunter on the stand in the Edwards trial.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all seven felony counts against Stevens that were overturned months later in the wake of revelations of prosecutorial failures in sharing evidence with the defense. We'll have to see what the jury does in the Edwards trial. To follow the developments, I recommend looking at the coverage of Josh Gerstein at Politico and the articles of Richard Simon and David Zucchino in the Los Angeles Times.

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