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Legendary criminal defense attorney Ed Genson, who represented the famous and the infamous, has died

Mr. Genson, 78, represented everyone from alleged mob killers to R. Kelly in Chicago courtrooms. Prosecutors and fellow defense attorneys were in awe of his cross-examinations.

Ed Genson, lead attorney for impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, talks with reporters as he leaves the federal building in Chicago in January  2009.
Ed Genson, lead attorney for then impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, talks with reporters as he leaves the federal building in Chicago in January 2009.
AP file photo

Where do you begin with Ed Genson? With the notorious defense attorney’s long list of famous clients? From singer R. Kelly to movie star Shia LaBeouf, from newspaper mogul Conrad Black to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich?

Do you start there?

Or with the Mafia hit men — alleged Mafia hit men, since many walked free, with Mr. Genson’s help — and mobbed up politicians? If Mr. Genson was famous for one thing, it was as the wily and effective attorney of the damned: “Devil’s advocate” is the headline Chicago magazine put on his profile in 2005.

“I have no aversion to organized crime,” Mr. Genson said in 2003.

Certainly his involvement with the infamous Chicago corruption probes — Greylord, Gambat, Silver Shovel, Operation Haunted Hall — should be prominently featured. Mr. Genson defended the accused in all of them.

At what point do you mention that death finally came for him, filing one motion he could not quash? Mr. Genson died Tuesday at age 78. He had been fighting cancer in recent years, and long suffered from a neuromuscular disorder called dystonia that sometimes makes muscles contract involuntarily. He walked with a cane or used a scooter but even that, he used to his legal advantage.

Former Ald. Miguel Santiago breathes a sign of relief after being acquitted of all ghost payrolling charges in 1999, as he exits the federal building with his attorneys, Ed Genson.
Former Ald. Miguel Santiago breathes a sigh of relief after being acquitted of all ghost payrolling charges in 1999, as he exits the federal building with his attorney, Ed Genson.
Sun-Times file photo

“When he was trying to do something in front of the jury, of course his limp got markedly worse,” said World Business Chicago CEO Andrea Zopp, a former federal prosecutor and first assistant Cook County state’s attorney. “I saw that happen more times than one.”

But he did a lot more than limp.

“Eddy was very, very prepared,” said Zopp.

For nearly half a century, no criminal attorney in Chicago was better known or held in the same mix of grudging affection and open-mouthed amazement.

”He was half-Columbo, half-Perry Mason,” said former federal prosecutor Patrick M. Collins. “When Eddy was on a case, you knew you were going to go to trial (rather than a plea). He really liked a good fight. Eddy shot you in the chest. He didn’t shoot you in the back. . . .You had to bring your ‘A’ game as a prosecutor.”

Or at least remember that you are a prosecutor.

“Sometimes when he was cross-examining an eyewitness,” said former U.S. Attorney Scott R. Lassar. “I would so admire what he was doing, I would forget I’m on the other side.”

The Chicago magazine profile contains this classic Ed Genson moment:

“Send this man back home to his family!” Genson implored the jury, making a sweeping gesture toward the woman and three children in the front row of the courtroom gallery. He had just wound up what would become perhaps his best-known closing argument. Best known because the man Genson was defending wasn’t married. Genson had planted the woman and children. He won.

Mr. Genson’s defense history defies summary. Ghost-payrollers and bribe takers. Two men implicated in a breathtaking London jewelry store theft of the 48-carat Marlborough Diamond. Former Bears quarterback, Jack Concannon, accused in 1982 of delivering cocaine. Alleged pimps: Vadim Gorr was acquitted of charges he held Latvian women as sex slaves.

”He had the ability to represent the street criminal to the boardroom criminal,” said Collins.

Underline the word “criminal” in the sentence above. Mr. Genson got many, many defendants off the hook, but that does not mean they were innocent. Just the opposite.

“The overwhelming majority of guys he represents are really guilty,” Zopp told writer Steve Rhodes. “And every one of those clients has gotten a very aggressive defense. He can work miracles.”

”Miracles” of course are a subjective description of putting criminals back on the street. The girls later abused by R. Kelly after Mr. Genson got him off 14 counts of child pornography on a technicality in 2008 might use a different word.

R. Kelly arrives in 2002 at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago with Ed Genson to turn himself in and was arrested moments after this picture was taken.
R. Kelly arrives in 2002 at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago with Ed Genson to turn himself in. Kelly was arrested moments after this picture was taken.
Sun-Times file photo

Even Mr. Genson slipped and acknowledged the obvious, telling the Sun-Times last year that Kelly was “guilty as hell” in 2008, an admission that sparked headlines across the country and a move to disbar Mr. Genson.

He kept his law license. But he didn’t always win. Former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds was convicted of sexual misconduct, child pornography and trying to block his investigation. Conrad Black was convicted of defrauding the company that owned the Sun-Times. Former state Sen. John D’Arco Jr. was convicted of bribe-taking. Scott Fawell, former chief of staff to Gov. Ryan, pleaded guilty to corruption; lobbyist and Ryan co-defendant Lawrence Warner also was convicted of corruption.

Win or lose, seeing Mr. Genson in action was a lifetime experience. Courtroom benches filled when word got around that he was about to cross-examine witnesses. His questioning made jurors wonder if they were tainted by money or revenge or fear.

“He had this ability to . . . effectively destroy a witness’ credibility, but he never appeared to be mean or out of line,” said Dan Webb, another former U.S. Attorney. “He always had his eye on the jury.”

After Mr. Genson became sick, attorney Vadim Glozman, who worked for Mr. Genson for years, said Mr. Genson would still attend hearings in federal court with him, from time to time. Every time, Glozman said, “he would tell the judge it was his last time.” Then, he’d show up again.

“I think Eddie was one of the last lawyers from the era of criminal defense lawyers that are all but gone,” Glozman said. “It’s a sad day for the whole practice.”

Raised in Lawndale, young Eddy was introduced to the criminal courtrooms of Chicago early, following around his father, a bail bondsman and precinct captain. He was fifth in his 1958 graduating class at Marshall High School, then graduated Northwestern in 1962 and law school at Northwestern in 1965.

Survivors include his wife, Susan, three children and five grandchildren.

Glozman released a statement from Mr. Genson’s family, which said, “The family’s feeling an overwhelming amount of sadness and grief. They’re mourning his loss and have no further comment at this time.”

“There are very few trial lawyers as skilled as Ed Genson. I held him at the top of the list,” said Webb, who worked with him on the corruption trial of former Gov. George Ryan. “He was extraordinarily well-liked by prosecutors and defense lawyers alike. You could talk to Ed Genson. You could get a deal done with Ed Genson. You could trust him.”

Contributing: Maureen O’Donnell