Lawyers in the R. Kelly sex-crimes case were in court Monday to argue over pretrial motions, including Kelly’s demand that prosecutors turn over copies of communications from Michael Avenatti, the attorney who claims to have found an old video showing Kelly having sex with one of his then-teen accusers.
Steve Greenberg, Kelly’s Chicago defense attorney, sought the hearing in response to dramatic news last week about Avenatti’s arrest by federal authorities in New York and California on charges of trying to extort shoemaker Nike for millions, embezzling clients’ money and bank fraud.
Greenberg argues that the federal cases against Avenatti expose him as a “carnival barker” whose aggressive style pressured Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx into prosecuting the R&B star on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse dating back to 1998 and involving four accusers, three of whom were under 17 at the time.
After a brief hearing Monday, Greenberg told reporters that Foxx rushed “to prosecute because of pressure — all polluted — by Michael Avenatti.” He said prosecutors “got in bed with Avenatti and Avenatti is toxic.”
Kelly, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, was not at the hearing.
Avenatti, whose Twitter account was briefly private Monday, returned to the platform with more barbed tweets against Greenberg, asserting the singer’s lawyer was “trying to distract attention away from the clear guilt of his client by raising bogus arguments about me and Kim Foxx.”
“Steve Greenberg is a hack who will grasp at anything to save his pedophile client R Kelly from life in prison. His claims are bogus. There was never anything improper about our involvement in the case and we are going to continue to press forward. DNA/video evidence do not lie,” Avenatti sneered in a tweet.
(Avenatti himself faced a hearing in Santa Ana, California, later on Monday, to answer federal charges he fraudulently obtained $4 million in bank loans and pocketed $1.6 million that belonged to a client.)
Greenberg’s motion asks the judge to order the preservation of all communications between Avanetti and the state’s attorney’s office, and also calls for an investigation of how Avanetti helped bring charges against Kelly.
Greenberg says he needs to see their communications to gauge the extent of Avenatti’s influence on the case as the source of crucial evidence – the video he claims to have “discovered” and given to Foxx – and as the attorney for one at least one of Kelly’s accusers in the case.
The motion says “Avenatti has acted as a de facto prosecutor” in the Kelly case, apparently “with the full cooperation” of Foxx. And it says Avanetti has also acted “as an agitator” for Foxx, “saying what she could not.”
Foxx’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment. Her office was represented at the hearing before Judge Lawrence Flood by Assistant State’s Attorneys Tene McCoy-Cummings, Anne McCord, and Jennifer Gonzalez, all of whom prosecute sex-crimes cases.
The extent of the prosecution’s evidence against Kelly is not fully known yet but it is believed to include DNA evidence and at least one video. As in any criminal case, the defense’s strategy would include challenging that evidence in pretrial motions.
And if possible, defense attorneys may also seek to dismiss the indictment based prosecutorial misconduct, says Eric Sussman, a partner in a prominent Chicago firm, ReedSmith, and a former second-in-command under Foxx in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Sussman says Foxx has mishandled the Kelly case from the beginning, by publicly “fishing” for accusers to come forward so she could charge him.
“You have, at that point, an uncharged private citizen and the prosecutor is getting up and soliciting for victims or witnesses,” Sussman told USA TODAY. “If he had already been charged, it would be one thing but to make these kinds of extrajudicial statements really crosses the line.
“Prosecutors are supposed to refrain from making (out-of-court) statements that pose a serious or imminent threat to a defendant’s right to a fair trial” by prejudicing potential jurors, he added. “I assume this (issue) will be a big portion of (Greenberg’s) defense strategy.”
Kelly, 59, has been dogged by sex-abuse accusations in multiple states for more than two decades, and has been tried only once – in 2008 in Chicago by a different state’s attorney – on child-porn charges. He was acquitted.
Now, in the wake of a Kelly-damning six-part TV series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” and a surging #MuteR.Kelly movement, Foxx is taking her turn at trying to put him behind bars, by seeking out more accusers and charging him with even more serious felonies.
In early February, enter Avenatti. Previously known mostly as the loud-talking lawyer for Stormy Daniels (who claimed she was paid to keep silent during the 2016 presidential campaign about her one-night stand with Donald Trump), Avenatti called a press conference to proclaim himself a mortal enemy of Kelly.
Avenatti said he had been “investigating” Kelly for months and that he found a 1999 videotape that allegedly depicted Kelly in sex acts with a girl who repeatedly said on the tape that she was 14. Avenatti said he turned the video over to Foxx soon after she publicly appealed for witnesses and accusers to come forward with allegations against Kelly.
On Feb. 22, Kelly was indicted and arrested, spending a weekend in jail as he scrambled to come up with bond money. Since then, he hasn’t helped his already damaged image, devolving into hysterics in an interview with Gayle King on CBS, and ending up in jail again for failing to pay more than $161,000 in back child support to his ex-wife.
On Wednesday, one of his accusers, Lanita Carter, a hairdresser who says Kelly sexually assaulted in 2003 when she was 24, went public for the first time in an interview on “CBS This Morning.” She said she was supposed to braid his hair; instead, he forced her to perform oral sex. According to the indictment, the shirt she was wearing that day was submitted to the Illinois State Police for DNA testing and a semen sample matched Kelly’s DNA profile.
Meanwhile, Avenatti’s legal woes may have provided an opening for the Kelly defense. For example, Avenatti says the video he turned over to Foxx is a different video, taking place on a different day, from the one used against Kelly in the 2008 trial.
Greenberg says he questions that. For one thing, he says, the teen girl in the video, now an adult, is the same girl as in the earlier video. And Avenatti claims she is his client now.
Contributing: The Associated Press