By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former presidential candidate John Edwards began his public rehabilitation on the steps of a federal courthouse shortly after the end of his trial on campaign finance charges.
For a man widely scorned for cheating on his wife as she battled cancer and then lying about his child with videographer Rielle Hunter, it will not be an easy road back. It's also uncertain where that road will take Edwards. One thing is clear, observers said: It's far too soon for the former senator to consider a return to politics.
On their ninth day of deliberation Thursday, a jury found Edwards not guilty on one count of taking illegal campaign contributions and deadlocked on five other campaign finance charges. Afterward, Edwards said he wanted to dedicate his life to being a good dad and to helping poor children in the United States and abroad.
"I don't think God's through with me," said the lawyer-turned-politician who fathered a child with his mistress during his 2008 presidential campaign. "I really believe he thinks there's still some good things I can do."
Political observers in the state Edwards represented for six years in the U.S. Senate said a quiet, altruistic life would clearly be the most sensible path to redemption.
Many expect a return to his professional roots - he made his name and millions as one of the country's top personal injury lawyers - with some type of legal aid work. Edwards' law license remains intact. A law enforcement source said Justice Department prosecutors were unlikely to retry Edwards but no final decision had been made.
"His political career is clearly in tatters," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"There seems to me to be no appetite, certainly in the short or even the medium term, for John Edwards to run for office again in North Carolina."
Prosecutors accused Edwards, who turns 59 on June 10, of seeking more than $900,000 from two wealthy supporters to conceal his pregnant mistress from voters during his bid to win the Democratic nomination four years ago.
Several jurors said on network talk shows on Friday that there was not enough evidence against Edwards to warrant convictions but some felt he was guilty of at least a few of the charges brought against him by the government.
"I think he definitely had some knowledge of the money, where the money was going," juror Ladonna Foster said on NBC's "Today" show.
"But he was just smart enough to hide it," said juror Cindy Aquaro.
None of the three jurors interviewed on NBC said they thought Edwards was a bad guy.
Wade Smith, a prominent Raleigh lawyer who Edwards has described as a legal mentor, said the American public understands people sometimes make big mistakes.
He said he would advise Edwards to concentrate for now on being a father. Since Elizabeth Edwards' death in 2010, John Edwards has been a single parent to their three surviving children: Cate, 30, Emma Claire, 14, and Jack, 12. The Edwardses' teenage son, Wade, died in a 1996 car crash.
Edwards also is helping to raise Quinn, his 4-year-old daughter with Hunter, according to Hunter's spokeswoman.
"The time will come when there will be other things that John can do," Smith said. "My hope would be that he would not push it, that he would be quiet and calm."
The level of sincerity Edwards shows in his family life and in whatever cause he takes up next will help shape the public's opinion of him, observers said.
"I think there's probably going to be some feeling that he's paid a pretty high price for what he did wrong," said Gary Pearce, who served as a consultant on Edwards' 1998 Senate campaign but has had little contact with him since.
"If he comes back and does something constructive, I think people will be forgiving."
(Additional reporting by Wade Rawlins; Editing by Jackie Frank and Bill Trott)