Two months before singer R. Kelly’s trial on federal 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.
///BREAKING/// Attorneys for #RKelly have asked to withdraw from his federal racketeering case in New York, which is scheduled to go to trial in August. pic.twitter.com/TcZm3BZjBP
“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 Wednesday.
Greenberg, who has represented Kelly since before his most recent criminal troubles began, told the Chicago Tribune in a telephone interview Monday that their withdrawal came after months of behind-the-scenes wrangling among the defense team.
He said two New York-based 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,” Greenberg said. “It became an impossible situation.”
Neither Farinella nor Becker responded to emailed requests for comment Monday.
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 in Chicago 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, a 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 member of the Federal Defender Program in Chicago and is an experienced trial lawyer at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.