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R. Kelly Tells a Judge That He Wants to Fire Two of His Lawyers Two Months Before His Trial

R. Kelly appears during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Sept. 17, 2019.

R. Kelly and lawyer Steve Greenberg

One day after two of R. Kelly’s lawyers filed a motion to withdraw from a high-profile criminal trial months away, the disgraced R&B star told a federal judge that they were not quitting. They were fired, the singer said.

The topic came up at a hastily assembled status conference on Tuesday, which followed motions to withdraw as counsel by Kelly’s lawyers Steven Greenberg and Michael Leonard. One of those lawyers gave an explosive interview to the New York Daily News on Tuesday slamming their co-counsel Nicole Blank Becker and Thomas A. Farinella as inexperienced.

“Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. Kelly over time has not made the best decisions and I fear he’s doing that now. But it’s not my problem I guess. I wish him the best. I hope he wins this case,” Greenberg told the Daily News. “You sort of want to take the high road but they’re just really f—ing him over, these two.”

At a virtual status conference in Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday, R. Kelly, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, finally had his say—of sorts.

“First of all, I apologize for the confusion, and I’m thankful that you’re giving me the chance to say something about it,” Kelly said.

But U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly interrupted Kelly before he got a chance to say anything further, reminding him it is generally unwise for clients to deliver unprepared statements in court without consulting with their attorneys.

Earlier in the hearing, Donnelly asked whether it was true that Kelly wished to terminate Greenberg and Leonard.

“Absolutely,” Kelly told the judge. “Yes, ma’am, your honor.”

Donnelly had learned that from Farinella, one of Kelly’s remaining lawyers.

That context had been absent from a one-page brief by Greenberg and Leonard on Tuesday.

“While we realize that this request comes close to trial—and although we are ready to proceed to trial as scheduled in August—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,” Greenberg wrote in a single-page letter, on behalf of himself and Leonard. “If the Court deems it necessary, we are willing to serving as effective stand-by counsel.”

Greenberg continued to pan his co-counsel in court, claiming they cannot deal with the stress of the case.

“It got to the point where we discussed these concerns with Mr. Kelly, Mr. Kelly did not want to meet with us,” Greenberg said.

Farinella told the judge that the situation was more complicated than the other lawyers disclosed.

“I think that Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Leonard is really moot because Mr. Kelly has the Sixth Amendment right to choose counsel,” Farinella said. “I think this court should accept Mr. Kelly’s decision.”

Reminding the parties that the written record is currently thin, Judge Donnelly ordered the parties to submit briefings.

“I accept Mr. Kelly’s representation that he no longer wishes to have Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Leonard represent him,” she said.

Kelly is being prosecuted in Brooklyn for alleged racketeering and other charges, accusing him of being a prolific abuser of women and girls. A superseding indictment last year introduced another alleged victim: “Jane Doe #6.” His trial is slated for Aug. 9.

(Antonio Perez/pool/Chicago Tribune)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."