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Abbe Lowell, Mr. Edwards’ lead lawyer, contends that even had Mr. Edwards known about the secret payments, his actions wouldn’t amount to a crime under federal law because his motivation was keeping his wife from learning of the affair, not influencing the outcome of an election. Mr. Lowell has said in court that the government’s case relies on flawed legal reasoning, that the grand jury process was tainted and that the Republican federal prosecutor who led the investigation, now-congressional candidate George Holding, was motivated by partisanship.

Mr. Lowell has derided what he calls the government’s “crazy” interpretation of federal law whereby money that was never handled by the candidate or deposited in a campaign account is being defined as campaign contributions.

The Federal Election Commission reviewed Mr. Edwards’ case and declined to seek charges or issue a fine. The defense is likely to call two former FEC commissioners as expert witnesses.

Mr. Edwards’ legal position is also supported in a court brief filed by the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a campaign finance watchdog group.

“In the United States, we don’t prosecute people for being loathsome, we prosecute them for violating the law,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said this week. “The real reason for these payments is obvious: to prevent Mr. Edwards’ cancer-stricken wife from finding out about the affair. This makes him despicable, but not a criminal.”

Much of the money at issue was funneled to Andrew Young, a former campaign aide once so close to Mr. Edwards that Mr. Young initially claimed paternity of his boss’s illegitimate child. Mr. Young and his wife invited the pregnant Ms. Hunter to live in their home near Chapel Hill and later embarked with her on a cross-country odyssey as they sought to elude tabloid reporters trying to expose the candidate’s extramarital affair.

Mr. Young later fell out with Mr. Edwards and wrote an unflattering tell-all book, “The Politician.” Mr. Young and Ms. Hunter recently ended a two-year legal battle over ownership of a sex tape the mistress recorded with Mr. Edwards during the campaign, agreeing to a settlement that dictates that copies of the video will be destroyed.

Mr. Young is expected to be a witness for the prosecution, while the defense is likely to call Ms. Hunter to testify. Two of the lawyers who represented Ms. Hunter in her civil suit against the former aide joined Mr. Edwards’ legal team last month. After years of adamant public denials, Mr. Edwards acknowledged paternity of Ms. Hunter’s daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, in 2010. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.

It has not yet been decided whether Mr. Edwards, who was once known for his ability to charm jurors, will testify in his own defense.

But if he does take the witness stand, the case could hinge on which admitted liar the jury chooses to believe — Mr. Edwards, who once appeared on national television to deny having an affair with Ms. Hunter and fathering her child, or Mr. Young, who signed a sworn affidavit claiming the baby was his.

“Juries seek the truth, and even as a (law) clerk I learned that neither silver-tongued cunning nor hapless bungling will find it for them,” Mr. Edwards wrote in “Four Trials.” ”So the best lawyer must be honest and in a way plain in answering any doubts or confusions, and you must know the facts — all of them — for otherwise the jury will lose faith in you. As it should.”