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Edward Marvin Genson is one of the best criminal defense lawyers-if not the best-in the city. More than that, though, Genson has become one of those oversize figures whose work represents a larger proposition: His cases tell the story of a certain slice of Chicago culture in the past three decades. Consider: Genson’s cases have ranged from the old mobbed-up First Ward of Pat Marcy and Fred Roti to the criminal enterprise known as the Secretary of State’s Office under George Ryan and Scott Fawell; from the burning of the West Side after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to the vicious beating of Lenard Clark; from the wild sex trial of former U.S. congressman Mel Reynolds to the aforementioned saga of R. Kelly; from mass commodities fraud on the floors of the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to alleged corporate corruption at politically influential companies such as Intercounty Title. Operations Greylord, Gambat, Silver Shovel, Haunted Hall, and Safe Roads-Genson has watched them all unfold from the best vantage point a city like Chicago has to offer: the defense table. “There’s probably not a significant criminal prosecution in Chicago-a really significant one-in the last 20 years that Eddie has not had a client in,” Zopp says.
He also has that final ingredient necessary to be a legend around here: He’s an authentic Chicago character.
“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.
Like most oft-told Genson stories, the beauty of this one isn’t just in the humor, but in the larger truth it tells about him. In this case, that he will do (almost) anything to win-and do it with wit and wile. He tells this particular story as often as other people do. “The great thing about Eddie stories is that no one tells them better than Eddie,” says the lawyer and writer Scott Turow, who has worked with Genson and against him. “Eddie loves to play the lovable rogue. He’s probably better at it than anyone else.”
By various accounts, Genson’s best bit of courtoom theatre features a recurring idiosyncrasy-his limp gets worse during a trial, the better to gain the sympathy of a jury. Genson has encouraged that analysis, but Turow says the truth runs deeper. “When he gets under stress, his symptoms do get much worse,” says Turow. “So when he starts trying cases, he is limping more because he’s in more pain. But he’s such a wily bullshit artist that, rather than let people know that he was actually in pain, Eddie for many years had the assistants in the U.S. Attorney’s Office believing that he was just limping more to excite the jury’s sympathies. And that’s what I mean by burnishing his own legend. By point of fact, the guy was suffering, but he didn’t want his opponents to know that it was physically hard on him, because then maybe they would extend a three-week trial to four weeks.”
Turow tells two stories from a case he worked on in his days as an assistant U.S. attorney that illustrate Genson’s pure love of the game. “We were trying a Hillside police officer and his confederates for an automobile insurance scam,” Turow recalls. “They pretended that a car had been stolen. They collected the insurance money and then sold the car, so it was the double dip. They were ultimately convicted.” Genson was defending the car’s owner, who was in on the scam, but at one point Genson put the Hillside police chief through a Columbo-like cross-examination. “Instead of making the police chief look like the fool, Eddie made himself look like the fool,” Turow says. “He pushed all the buttons, acted like the monkey, and of course made the jury fall in love with him by appearing so buffoonish. It was a complete success at every level, including making the police chief look like a self-important idiot. Eddie finished and, you know, Eddie’s got a disability. Notwithstanding that, he did a bow like Sir Walter Raleigh. He literally crossed his legs, bowed fully from the waist, and swept his hand down, as if he was moving his hat with a feather. It was just an unbelievable moment.”
After the supposed theft, the car’s owner had been spotted driving it by an honest young Hillside police officer. Turow put the officer on the stand and asked if he recognized the car owner in the courtroom. The man was sitting next to Genson at the defense table. “[The officer] looks across the courtroom and says, ‘No,’” Turow recalls. “I’m devastated. So we get a break and I said to Eddie, ‘I can’t believe this. You’re gonna win this goddamn case!’ And Eddie says, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s the best thing that could have ever happened to you! You’re gonna tell the jury, ‘Now, here’s a guy who was a cop for X number of years. You think he doesn’t know where the defendant is sitting? He knows where he is. But he’s too honest a guy even to lie about the fact that he can’t remember this man.’ And, you know, he was absolutely right. That’s what I argued, and we won the case. It was just typical of Eddie. Now, if he had thought that I wasn’t gonna think of that, he never would have said anything. But he knew me well enough to know that once I got over my shock about this turn of events, I was gonna recognize that I was actually in good shape. He was just comforting me! It was kind of an avuncular thing.”
Although Jeffrey Steinback, a former partner in Genson & Gillespie and close associate, has described Genson as an “unfed tiger . . . [whose] cases are huge pieces of raw steak,” Genson’s collegial attitude with his opponents in court may reflect his sense that he’s in a good business. When other lawyers were complaining a few years ago about the aggressiveness of the new U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, Genson-who charges about $700 an hour-couldn’t have been happier. “He’s going to make defense lawyers a fortune,” he predicted.
Photograph: Tom Maday
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