While it’s true that the indictment returned against former U.S. Senator John Edwards last week in United States v. Johnny Reid Edwards, 11-cr-00161-1 (USDC MDNC) which alleges conspiracy, four counts of illegal campaign contributions, and one count of false statements may be "thin gruel" and a "reach" for the government, federal conspiracy law presents prosecutors with a powerful means to try to secure a conviction. Pundits and legal observers are correct when they say that if the purpose of the underlying conspiracy was, as is alleged in the indictment, "to protect and advance Edward’s candidacy by secretly obtaining and using hundreds of thousands of dollars" to "conceal [his] extramarital affair...", it is an essential element of the offense that, at some time during the existence of the conspiracy, Senator Edwards knew its purpose and deliberately joined it. See Pettibone v. United States, 148 U.S.197 (1893): United States v. Falcone, 311 U.S.205 (1940). Still, it must be understood, first, that in a conspiracy, the evidence need not show that the conspirators entered into an express or formal agreement, or even that they directly, by spoken or written words, stated amongst themselves what their object or purpose was. Instead, an agreement can be inferred from the relationships and the course of dealings between the conspirators. See Fifth Circuit Judges Association Pattern Jury Instructions, p.62 (1979); United States v. Lopez, 944 F.2d 33 (1st Cir.1991). Second, and perhaps more important, in establishing a conspiracy, the government need not prove that a particular defendant [e.g., Senator Edwards] knew all the details of the conspiracy or the identification of all the participants, or even that the conspirators shared all the same knowledge beyond a silent understanding that their illicit agreement existed. See United States v. Bello- Perez, 977 F2d.664 (1st Cir. 1992);United States v. Andloschek, 142 F.2d. 503 (2d Cir. 1944). Indeed, related federal jury instructions make it clear not only that some conspirators play major roles and others play minor roles, but also that a single act can be enough to draw one into the ambit of a conspiracy, so long as the proof established that the defendant was aware of the conspiracy and knowingly associated himself with it. In other words, if it can simply be proven that it was understood that Senator Edwards wanted just one of his donors, or "money people", to make sure his mistress stayed quiet, that could be enough to sustain a guilty verdict if it is proven that campaign funds were diverted, or illegal contributions were used, for that purpose. Thin gruel, indeed, but when it comes to conspiracy law(s), it is critical that the defendant be aware that sometimes such charges do stick, like oatmeal.
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