Steve Chapman

The case against him is pretty simple. In 2007, while running for president, he solicited more than $900,000 in donations from two rich supporters. He used the money to secretly support his mistress, Rielle Hunter, who later gave birth to his child.

The government insists the funds were campaign contributions intended to "conceal from the public facts that he believed would harm his candidacy." Edwards' lawyers say they were personal gifts that he used for a private, and perfectly legal, purpose: to keep his wife in the dark.

To convict him, prosecutors have to prove that the payments "would have been made irrespective of the candidacy." But it's no reach to think Edwards would have gone to great expense to hide Hunter even if he were not running for president.

Demonstrating "reasonable doubt" about his motives seems eminently plausible.

Melanie Sloan, head of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, issued a statement calling the case against Edwards "strikingly flimsy." Not only that, she said, but "no court has ever interpreted the definition of campaign contribution this broadly."

New York University law professor Richard Pildes writes that "the government has never brought a criminal case involving an expansive notion of 'contribution,' let alone one as expansive as this case involves." Before this indictment, he estimates, 90 percent of election law experts would have assumed this sort of donation was not covered.

The Justice Department has no business trying to imprison someone for violating a law whose meaning is anyone's guess. Civilized government requires giving citizens clear advance notice of what constitutes a crime.

Edwards' conduct was so repellent that he enjoys little sympathy, making his prosecution politically safe. But the rule of law exists to protect sinners as well as saints. He may deserve to rot in hell. Just not in jail.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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