Devils’ Advocate

From our March 2005 issue: To people accused of doing bad things—embezzling millions, bribing judges, putting a bullet in someone’s head—Ed Genson may be the go-to lawyer in town. For years the Mob had him on speed dial. And pols in trouble (including Larry Warner, Governor Ryan’s friend and codefendant) regularly sign up with him. He’s cunning, funny, sometimes outrageous—a master of the cross examination. But what matters most to his clients: He’ll do (almost) anything to win.

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The worn wooden doors of a Cook County courtroom swing open and the legendary criminal defense attorney Eddie Genson rolls in. He’s hardly an intimidating sight; not an ounce of slickness emanates from his bearish, roly-poly, 63-year-old body. He’s riding an excruciatingly slow electric scooter, a concession he made about five years ago to a neurological disorder that makes it painful to walk.

Once in the courtroom, he still uses his signature cane to get around, and instead of standing before a jury, he’ll sit on a high wooden chair, his feet dangling above the floor. Genson’s body may hurt, but his mind is still quick and his reputation formidable, despite a long career spent defending notorious mobsters, sleazy politicians, and other generally unsavory figures. “The overwhelming majority of guys he represents are really guilty,” says Andrea Zopp, a former Cook County prosecutor who now works as general counsel for Sears. “And every one of those clients has gotten a very aggressive defense. He can work miracles.”

Genson rides down the aisle of the courtroom, his head bobbing slightly from his malady, affably chatting up a few folks as he makes his way to the defense table. His “Good morning"s tend to include the question “How are you feeling today?” as if everyone lived in the chronic pain he suffers from. This morning, Genson is feeling pretty good. In ten minutes, his client arrives. It’s the R&B superstar R. Kelly, a man of immense means who’s in deep trouble-the kind of person who will call Genson looking for one of those miracles. Kelly is facing 14 counts of possession of child pornography, in connection with a graphic sex video, widely circulated, in which he allegedly appears.

Today’s court date is a pretrial status hearing dominated by the question of whether prosecutors will be allowed to put a pediatrician on the stand to estimate the age of the girl in the video (authorities maintain she is a minor). Sitting at the defense table, Genson and Kelly look like the costars of a bad buddy movie. Kelly, in a perfectly tailored dark suit and slicked-back cornrows, is all scowls and knitted brow. Genson, with his scraggly beard and shaggy curls falling from the back of a balding head, is calm, even content. Until it’s time to speak. Then Genson unwinds his argument with increasing volume, demanding that the pediatrician be barred because her judgment will be “subjective.” He uses the word “ridiculous” twice in his attack on the prosecutors’ stance, suggesting that jurors can make their own, commonsense estimate of the girl’s age. Knowing that prosecutors believe they know the girl’s identity and birthdate anyway, he observes sourly, “I don’t know that it takes special qualifications to read a birth certificate.” In the end, the judge schedules the matter for a fuller hearing at a later date-Genson has essentially fought to a draw.

So the hobbled lawyer heads back to his office in the Monadnock Building, the lawyers’ haven on West Jackson Boulevard, to contemplate his other pressing cases. For example, in one of the largest financial scandals in recent state history, a suburban real-estate developer, Jack Hargrove, is charged in connection with the alleged embezzlement of $80 million from the politically influential Intercounty Title Company of Illinois and related companies. Genson claims that Hargrove is actually a victim, not a perp. In another spotlight case, Scott Anixter, who was previously convicted in a soybean trading scam, is scheduled to stand trial in September in an alleged $80-million corporate fraud case at Anicom, his family’s industrial wire and cable company. On the noir side of the ledger, there’s the ongoing saga of Bruno Mancari. The Mancari name is well known in the Chicago area because of the ubiquitous television and radio commercials for the south suburban auto dealerships of Bruno’s brother, Frank. Genson is defending Bruno on a federal gun possession charge, but a conviction would be a mere consolation prize for prosecutors. Two years ago, Bruno was tried in connection with the killing of a boyhood friend who wound up in a car trunk before he could tell a grand jury what he knew about a chop shop operation in which he and Bruno were allegedly involved. Frank Mancari hired a Chicago Dream Team for his brother, led by Genson and including lawyers Sam Adam, R. Eugene Pincham, and Tom Breen. The prosecution’s case fell apart when one witness changed his story and another decided at the last minute to take the Fifth. Bruno was acquitted.

More immediately, Genson has to be in federal court for a hearing tomorrow morning on behalf of dealmaker Larry Warner, a pal of former governor George Ryan. Ryan and Warner are scheduled to go on trial together in one of the most explosive cases of alleged political corruption in Illinois history. At the hearing tomorrow, prosecutors will continue their efforts to get Genson thrown off the case because he used to represent the onetime Ryan aide and protégé Scott Fawell, who is now expected to testify against his former boss. And then tomorrow afternoon, Genson is due back in state court to pick a jury in the retrial of the so-called “angel killer” Margaret DeFrancisco, a 20-year-old Pilsen resident featured on America’s Most Wanted.

Genson is also handling about a dozen other cases. It isn’t easy being a legend.

 Photograph: Tom Maday

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