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R. Kelly’s Chicago attorneys move to withdraw from case 2 months before trial in New York

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R. Kelly - 2019

R. Kelly appears during a hearing Sept. 17, 2019, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago.

Two months before singer R. Kelly is scheduled to go to trial on racketeering charges in New York, his Chicago-based attorneys are moving to withdraw from the case after they said two other attorneys with limited experience demanded a larger role.

The move to withdraw by attorneys Steven Greenberg and Michael Leonard came in a terse, one-page letter filed to U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly on Monday evening that gave no specific reason for the sudden change.

“While we realize that this request comes close to trial — and although we are ready to proceed to trial as scheduled in August — our reasons for withdrawal are significant and it is impossible, in our belief, for us to be able to continue to properly represent Mr. Kelly under the current circumstances,” the filing stated. “If the court deems it necessary, we are willing to (serve) as effective stand-by counsel.”

The letter stated that prosecutors had been notified of their position. Donnelly could decide, however, to deny the move given the proximity to the trial, which will attract worldwide attention and is set to begin Aug. 9 after numerous pandemic-related delays. Jury questionnaires had been set to go out to a pool of hundreds of potential jurors next month.

The issue is likely to be addressed during a previously scheduled status hearing on Wednesday.

Greenberg, who has represented Kelly since before his most recent criminal troubles began, told the Tribune in a telephone interview Monday that their withdrawal came after months of behind-the-scenes wrangling among the defense team.

A federal judge has said that R. Kelly should be moved to a New York jail ahead of his sex trafficking trial this summer. Kelly is currently in jail in Chicago where he is potentially facing a second trial later this year in relation to sex crimes. The trial in New York was put off due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly said that there are protections in place that will allow the trial to take place. Kelly’s trial is expected to take place on August 9 and he will likely be moved to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. The singer allegedly recruited women and girls for sex with the help of his managers, bodyguards and other employees. The jury is expected to hear testimony from alleged victims who will remain anonymous.

He said two other attorneys on the case, Thomas Farinella and Nicole Blank Becker, had won Kelly’s trust and were demanding a prominent role in what surely will be a complex trial, even though neither has prior trial experience in federal court.

“As experienced and competent trial lawyers, we don’t feel that it’s in Robert’s best interest to allow lawyers who have never tried a federal criminal case to have significant trial responsibilities,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg said they tried to meet recently with Kelly, who is being held without bond at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, to discuss the situation, but he refused to see them.

“I wish Robert the best. We had every intention of winning this case. It became an impossible situation,” Greenberg said.

Farinella said in an emailed statement Monday that Kelly had “terminated” both Greenberg and Leonard before they filed their motion.

Kelly, 54, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn in 2019 on racketeering charges alleging he ran a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls for illegal sexual contact, then isolated and threatened them to keep them under control.

In addition to the much-delayed proceedings in Brooklyn, Kelly also is set for trial in September in Chicago’s federal court. He is charged here with numerous sex abuse-related counts, including allegations he conspired with two former employees to rig his 2008 child pornography trial in Cook County by paying off witnesses and victims to change their stories.

Other indictments alleging sexual abuse by Kelly brought in Cook County in February 2019 have yet to be scheduled for trial.

Greenberg has been a vociferous advocate for Kelly since the singer came under increased scrutiny in early 2019 with the release of the docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly.” He previously represented former Bolingbrook cop Drew Peterson, who was convicted of killing his ex-wife, as well as numerous other high-profile state and federal cases in Illinois.

Leonard, who was brought in after Kelly was indicted in federal court, is a federal panel attorney in Chicago and is an experienced trial lawyer at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.

“I was brought in to try the case with Steve with the express understanding that we would have complete autonomy with respect to trial strategy and the assignment of trial responsibilities,” Leonard wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Unfortunately, that was turned on its head. We continue to believe that it is not only a defensible case, but a winnable case.”

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