R. Kelly wants to go to trial in New York without Chicago-based attorneys

Kelly’s leading defense attorneys threw a wrench into the case earlier this week when they asked to withdraw from the case two months before trial. Other members of the legal team say they were fired.

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R. Kelly walks with supporters out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Thursday morning, June 6, 2019.

R. Kelly walks with supporters out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Thursday morning, June 6, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

R&B superstar R. Kelly confirmed for a judge Wednesday that he wants to move forward with his federal racketeering trial in New York without the Chicago-based attorneys who had been leading his defense.

U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly did not immediately rule during a status hearing Wednesday on a request from defense attorneys Steve Greenberg and Mike Leonard to withdraw from the case. 

However, the judge asked Kelly directly whether he wanted to move forward with two other members of his legal team, Thomas Farinella, of New York, and Nicole Blank Becker, of Michigan. 

“Absolutely, yes ma’am, your honor,” Kelly said. 

The singer began to say more, telling the judge, “I apologize for the confusion. I’m thankful that you’re giving me a chance to say something about it.” 

But the judge decided to cut off the conversation, telling lawyers to instead file paperwork further explaining the situation. 

Meanwhile, Farinella told the judge, “We’re prepared to move forward with trial,” which is set for Aug. 9. 

Greenberg and Leonard threw a wrench into the case earlier this week when they asked Monday to withdraw two months before the trial date. Other members of the legal team say the men were fired, though. 

Greenberg wrote in a letter to the judge that, “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.”

Though Greenberg didn’t go into further detail in his letter, a dispute over trial responsibilities apparently played a role in the conflict. Greenberg told the Chicago Sun-Times that Farinella and Becker had sought greater roles in Kelly’s Brooklyn trial.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Greenberg said, “Frankly, everyone wants to be first chair.”

Greenberg and Leonard also wrote in text messages to the Sun-Times this week that they only felt comfortable giving significant trial responsibilities to lawyers who had substantial jury trial experience in federal court.

Farinella and Becker declined to comment Monday other than to say Kelly had fired Greenberg and Leonard before their letter to the judge was filed. Greenberg said he’d given prosecutors a heads up about the move earlier in the day. But Wednesday, he acknowledged that Kelly sent him an email after the Monday letter saying he did not want Greenberg and Leonard to continue their work on the case.

Kelly is charged in Brooklyn with racketeering. His indictment there alleges he led an “enterprise” made up of his managers, bodyguards, drivers and other employees who helped him recruit women and girls for sex.

A separate indictment in Chicago charges Kelly with child pornography and obstruction of justice. It alleges he thwarted his 2008 prosecution in Cook County with threats, gifts and six-figure payoffs.

Kelly, 54, has been held in Chicago’s downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center since his arrest in July 2019, though authorities have recently said they would be preparing to move him to New York for trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes said Wednesday that paperwork had been filed, but she said Kelly’s attorneys “would like him to remain in Chicago for as long as possible.”

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