By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former presidential candidate John Edwards returned to a courtroom on Thursday, a familiar setting for a man who made millions as a trial lawyer but now faces possible prison time if convicted of federal campaign-finance violations.
The Democratic former U.S. senator and two-time White House hopeful arrived for jury selection in his criminal trial, which began Thursday morning in Greensboro, North Carolina.
With his parents and eldest daughter, Cate, watching in the courtroom, Edwards stood and gave a brief smile when introduced to about 100 potential jurors. Outside, he gave a curt "no" when asked by reporters if he had any comment.
Edwards, 58, is accused of secretly soliciting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign funds from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress during his failed bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The federal government says Edwards obtained the money to conceal the extramarital affair and child he had with a campaign videographer in order to protect his public image as a devoted family man.
Edwards was indicted on six counts in June 2011 and pleaded not guilty to all the charges, which included conspiracy, taking illegal campaign contributions and making false statements. Each count carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"This is not a case about whether Mr. Edwards was a good husband or a good politician," U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles told prospective jurors, asking them to focus only on the law as she explained it.
The one-term North Carolina senator has admitted publicly to moral wrongs but is adamant that he did not break the law.
Edwards, who also ran for president in 2004 before becoming John Kerry's vice presidential running mate the same year, saw his political star fall after revelations that he had cheated on his cancer-stricken wife with a campaign worker named Rielle Hunter.
He initially denied the affair and, according to the indictment, asked a campaign aide to falsely claim paternity of the daughter Hunter gave birth to in February 2008.
Edwards' rotating cast of defense attorneys since his indictment has argued in pre-trial hearings and court documents that the government is pursuing an "unprecedented" use of federal election laws.
They said that even if Edwards had known about the donor money used to pay for Hunter's rent, living expenses, medical care and travel, the gifts were from one third party to another and were not contributions subject to campaign finance laws.
Defense attorneys also have said the payments were intended to conceal the affair from Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, and their children, and were not aimed at influencing the election.
"The distinction between a wrong and a crime is at the heart of this case," the defense said in one court filing.
The Edwardses separated in 2010 after John Edwards admitted he was the father of Hunter's child. Elizabeth Edwards died of cancer later that year.
Prior to winning his Senate seat in 1998, Edwards spent two decades as a highly successful lawyer specializing in corporate negligence and medical malpractice cases. He earned a reputation as a defender of the poor and working class by taking on big corporations and winning large jury awards.
Eagles, nominated to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2010, is presiding over the trial, which was delayed for several months because of a reported heart condition cited by John Edwards.
Twelve jurors and several alternates will be chosen in the coming week to decide the case. Testimony is due to start on April 23, and Eagles said the lawyers expect the trial to end in late May or early June.
"On TV, justice occurs in an hour," Eagles said. But in real life, "there are some things you cannot rush."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Prudence Crowther and Eric Beech)