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While the Greylord trials were still winding down, an even more eye-opening corruption case broke into public view. For three years, a Mob lawyer, Robert Cooley, wore a wire in a federal investigation named after him, Operation Gambat (short for “gambling attorney"). Once again, Genson was the go-to lawyer (the press was just starting to call him “legendary") for Marcy, Roti, and their pet state senator, John D’Arco Jr., among others. Genson set the tone from the start. “These allegations . . . are the ravings of a sick mind, and Mr. Cooley will be shown as such in court,” he said when the indictments were announced. That set up a series of dramatic courtroom confrontations between Genson and Cooley, who to this day despise each other. In his opening statement in the D’Arco trial, for example, Genson described Cooley as “a paragon of corruption,” saying, “This man is walking slime.” Cooley now uses the quote on the Web site promoting his 2004 book, When Corruption Was King, which includes an unflattering portrait of Genson as a lazy, untrustworthy lawyer. In the course of the D’Arco trial, Genson objected so frequently during Cooley’s testimony that, at one point, the prosecutor said Genson had “done more testifying than Mr. Cooley.”
“At least it’s more accurate!” Genson responded.
Genson’s most memorable moment, though, was when he became so exasperated by Cooley’s long-winded answers on cross-examination that he slammed his cane against the defense table and demanded the judge declare a mistrial. The judge later warned Genson, “Next time I see that cane misused, it’s going out the door!” D’Arco was convicted on charges of extortion and income tax evasion, and later sentenced to three years in prison. Roti was convicted of racketeering and extortion and sentenced to four years. Marcy’s fatal heart attack precluded a verdict in his trial.
“It takes a special breed of person to be a criminal defense lawyer because you lose all the time,” says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. “It’s like, ‘Again? Can’t I ever win?’ It takes somebody that will really hang in there, and he’s one of those.”
In a sense, Genson is a victim of his own legend when it comes to his won-lost record. “I’m like a cancer doctor-people come to me when they’re dead and ask me to save their lives,” he says. “I’m afraid I’ll lose them all.”
In criminal defense, “winning” and “losing” are best defined by what a lawyer realistically expects. Take the case of Frank Caruso Jr., the 19-year-old white Bridgeport kid charged in 1997 (along with two others) with the near-fatal beating of a 13-year-old African American, Lenard Clark. Caruso was convicted and served time, but Genson considers the case a win because the young man beat an attempted murder rap. “He would’ve gotten 20 years without parole if he lost on attempted murder,” Genson says. “He got eight years on aggravated battery. It was reduced to five years on appeal. He did three. That was what I wanted. I knew I couldn’t beat it, but I didn’t want attempted murder. Some people said I lost, but I know I won.”
Genson’s losses certainly haven’t hurt his reputation. While working on this story, I
e-mailed a friend at a law firm asking what he knew about Genson. His reply: “If I ever kill, I’m calling him.” Later, I ran that by the former U.S. attorney Jim Burns, now the
inspector general in the secretary of state’s office, and he said, “He’s on everybody’s short list.” Then Andrea Zopp told me, “He’s on mine.”
After the hearing at the federal courthouse about whether Genson could stay in the Ryan-Warner trial, Genson raced to the Cook County criminal courthouse to pick a jury for the so-called angel killer, Margaret DeFrancisco, the pretty young Pilsen woman charged when she was a teenager in the murder of a 22-year-old truck driver who was romantically interested in her sister. That sister, Regina, had already been convicted for her part in luring the man to the DeFranciscos’ basement, where he was shot in the back of the head; the body was then dumped in a vacant lot and burned. It was Margaret’s second trial; the first had ended in a mistrial when a holdout juror locked herself in a bathroom, refusing to believe that someone so young could commit such a heinous crime (the girls’ motive was to steal the young man’s money).
The trial was tough going for Genson; Margaret was the proverbial cancer patient looking for a miracle. He gave it his all-after Genson’s impassioned closing argument, prosecutor Fabio Valentini whispered to Genson, “I just wanted to tell you I hate you,” before beginning his own close. Genson returned the compliment, telling Valentini, “In about 45 minutes, I’m going to hate you.”
After an hour and 40 minutes, the jury had reached a verdict: Guilty. “Shit,” Genson muttered.
About a month later, at the sentencing, Genson again mustered an impassioned argument-this time in favor of the minimum 45 years in prison for the young woman, with no parole. “This is a little girl who did a terribly stupid thing,” Genson said, as Margaret wiped tears from her eyes. “This is one day in a little girl’s life.”
The judge’s decision: 46 years.
Afterwards, an exhausted Genson said to me, “I’ve got three murder cases left; then I’m done with them. I’ll stick with politicians.”
The Ryan-Warner trial had been set for March until Ed Genson unexpectedly spoke up, throwing Judge Pallmeyer’s courtroom into disarray. At a hearing in late January, Pallmeyer was considering a desperate motion by Ryan’s lawyer, Dan Webb, to postpone the trial to the fall because Webb planned to be busy defending Philip Morris against a U.S.
Department of Justice lawsuit. If Webb couldn’t get the delay, Ryan would have to find another lawyer.
The hearing was a moment of high drama, as indicated by the guest list. U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald showed up, as did former governor Jim Thompson, a friend of Ryan’s, as well as Webb’s partner at Winston & Strawn. Webb himself made a rare appearance-the case had previously been handled by colleagues of his. George Ryan came, literally to beg the judge for a delay; former first lady Lura Lynn Ryan also appeared, greeting Genson with a kiss on the cheek.
Pallmeyer didn’t want to grant Webb’s motion. In December, she had said that the trial would go ahead in March barring “acts of God.” She had shuffled her calendar to accommodate the Ryan-Warner proceedings, as had every other judge in the federal building. Genson, in fact, had beseeched other judges to move two of his trials to the fall so he could conduct Warner’s defense in the spring. And for a year and a half, Genson had been reminding Pallmeyer of his client’s right to a speedy trial (Warner was indicted almost two years before Ryan).
But loyalty is a powerful ingredient in Illinois politics, and a day before the hearing Warner told Genson he had decided to help his friend, the ex-governor, and go along with the delay request. When Genson reported this to the court, Pallmeyer was flummoxed, admitting her “enormous unhappiness.” Prosecutors were outraged. Patrick Collins pointed out that his team had asked Pallmeyer in November to set the March date in stone “to avoid being exactly where we are today.” Collins demanded to know why Warner had changed his mind.
“Quite frankly, it’s none of your business,” Genson said.
Pallmeyer called for a recess to consider the matter; upon her return, she granted Webb’s motion, saying somewhat inexplicably that Ryan should get the same delay she would grant to any other defendant.
Collins angrily requested that Warner be brought to court in person to explain his change of heart. “The court should know the reason,” Collins said.
Genson exploded. “What’s wrong with him?” he demanded. “The court shouldn’t know anything.”
George Ryan walked out of the courtroom that day with a big grin on his face. Jim Thompson spotted Genson in the hallway, pumped his hand, and proclaimed, “Good man!”
Then I said to Genson, “I can’t believe you won that.”
Not wanting to get baited into a comment in front of other reporters, Genson just glanced at me with a shrug, a smile, and a wave of his hand. Looking like the cat that swallowed the canary, he rode off down the corridor. He had to call his client with the news-and reschedule a few cases.