The Chicago Syndicate: Four Chicago Defense Lawyers in A League of Their Own

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Four Chicago Defense Lawyers in A League of Their Own

In a city infamous for crime and corruption, the top criminal defense lawyers are as colorful and cunning as their clients.

They are routinely faced with insurmountable government evidence – wiretaps, surveillance tapes, fingerprints and informants. And they also claim the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure are weighted in favor of the government.

On top of this, their cold-blooded clients can make a lawyer's life hell – especially when they lose.

"I think it's very difficult to do what they do," said Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who has covered many corruption and mob trials in Chicago. "Their clients demand perfection. They're the kind of clients you don't want to anger."

This is a surprisingly small club, with only about 15 lawyers doing criminal defense work in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on a regular basis.

Lawyers USA interviewed four prominent Chicago criminal defense lawyers: Joseph "The Shark" Lopez; Rick Halprin, Edward Genson and Steven R. Hunter. All have recently handled high-profile federal trials.

Whether grilling government witnesses on the stand or trying to convince jurors to spare cold-blooded killers, these lawyers are in a legal league of their own.

Joseph "The Shark" Lopez

Lopez is the only one of the four who actually looks the part of a "wise-guy" lawyer.

Joseph 'The Shark' Lopez has been called a mob layer and a gang lawyer, but he could care less.Wearing a black suit, black shirt, a black tie with bright slashes of color and a diamond ring with enough bling to make a rapper blush, Lopez, 52, could care less if people call him a "mob lawyer."

"I've been called a mob lawyer, gang lawyer. I've represented a lot of mobsters," he said.

He's also been called "Shark" since he was a youth; it's on his license plate and his e-mail address.

Lopez, who represented Frank Calabrese Sr., in last year's "Family Secrets" trial in Chicago, is not exactly media shy. He wrote his own blog (The Chicago Syndicate) about the trial while it was under way – until the judge ordered him to shut it down.

"He's promoted himself in every way possible," said fellow criminal lawyer Halprin, who represented another defendant in the Family Secrets trial. "That blog was outrageous."

Lopez is unrepentant: "The government was mad because I was criticizing them and their witnesses."

He plans to re-launch his blog this summer during the trial of client Gary Kimmel, a Chicago dentist charged with laundering money for a nationwide prostitution ring.

A native Chicagoan of Mexican/Italian heritage, Lopez graduated from the University of Illinois law school. He planned to specialize in divorce law, but was asked to help out in a drug case. "My friends were Colombian/Mexican drug [defendants]," he said. "They sent me over there because I was squeaky clean."

A large swordfish hangs on the wall of his cluttered office. "I tell my clients, 'See how that fish's mouth is open? That's how it got caught,'" he said, laughing loudly.

Sketches on the wall depict Lopez in several of his biggest cases. He represented Rev. Jesse Jackson's brother, Noah, in a money laundering case; and one of the teenage defendants in the infamous Lenard Clark case. Clark, a young black teenager, was savagely beaten by a group of white teenagers in 1997 as he rode his bike home through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Lopez has a trial scheduled for the end of March involving Fernando King, the head of the Latin Kings gang in Chicago, on drug and weapons charges.

Lopez said he's always confident going into the courtroom. "Most lawyers are afraid they're gong to lose, so they talk their clients into pleading guilty," he said. "I always think I'm going to win. Even if there are 300 witnesses, I convince myself I'm going to win."

Rick Halprin

In stark contrast to Lopez, Halprin, 68, looks more like a securities lawyer than a criminal defense attorney. Dressed conservatively in a blue shirt with white collar, red checked tie, suit pants and vest, he said he is careful not to call attention to himself. "The most important thing is never lose your credibility with the jury," he said. "When the trial is about the lawyer, you're dead. When it's an endless cross examination that goes nowhere, you're dead. And when you dress flashy instead of conservative, you're dead."

Thomas A. Durkin, a veteran criminal defense lawyer and partner in Durkin & Roberts in Chicago, described Halprin as "absolutely one of the very best courtroom lawyers in Chicago."

"He's extremely persuasive with juries; he's very smooth," Durkin said. "He can be very low-key when the situation calls for it, and he can be aggressive when that's appropriate."

Halprin bristles at the term "mob lawyer," even though he defended Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, 78, in the Family Secrets trial – the biggest mob trial in Chicago in years.

"I'm not a mob lawyer," he said. "I think it's absurd."

Lombardo, along with Calabrese and mob boss James Marcello, were convicted of a total of 10 murders.

Although Halprin and Lombardo had their "moments" of disagreement in the courtroom, Halprin said Lombardo didn't blame him for the verdict. "I know to the whole world he's a scary guy, but if you explain something to him enough times he gets it," Halprin said. "The trial is about the evidence. You've got to be a good cross-examiner, and I'm very good at it," said Halprin. "You [attack] the lifestyle of the main witness – but if you can't take out the corroborative evidence, in the end, jurors are collectively just too smart to be swayed by that."

According to columnist Kass, "It's difficult to represent the Chicago Outfit – especially when they insist, as Lombardo did, on putting themselves on the stand."

Rick Halprin's client, Joseph Lombardo could not resist a few cracks from the witness stand as 'Joey is JoeyWhile Lombardo "tried hard" to curb his wise-guy comments on the stand, Halprin said, he couldn't resist a few cracks that elicited laughter from the audience, and a rebuke from the judge.

"Joey is Joey," said Halprin. "There's no way you can get someone to change their contentious nature or stop making inappropriate jokes. He is a very funny guy, but there's a time and a place – and this was neither. But he tried hard."

Halprin, who described himself as a wild youth, never graduated from high school. He joined the Marines at 17, and eventually got enough hours of college credit so he could get into law school. He graduated from John Marshall Law School and has been practicing since 1970.

He learned the local legal ropes from Frank Oliver, a renowned Chicago criminal lawyer.

Sitting in his office a block and a half away from the federal courthouse, Halprin – who has a deep voice reminiscent of TV talk show host Larry King – said he has no plans to retire.

"I'm having too much fun. There's nothing like a federal courtroom. Federal trials are so challenging and so difficult to win," he said. "I'm going to die in the courtroom."

Edward Genson

At 66, Genson is the dean of Chicago's criminal lawyers. Just don't call him a "mob lawyer."

Genson detests the term so much that he stopped talking to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin after her description of Genson as a mob lawyer was picked up by Vanity Fair magazine.

"I was angry about it," he said. "At some point in my career I had a number of Italian politicians as clients. That was about 20 years ago, and it was never more than 10 percent of my practice."

In 43 years of practice, Genson has represented scores of well-known clients, including former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's aide Scott Fawell and lobbyist Larry Warner. Even young Hollywood star Shia LaBeouf called on Genson when he was arrested in Chicago last year for refusing to leave a Chicago drugstore. "A lovely young man," Genson said, noting that the charges against LaBeouf were dropped.

In a case that has dragged on for six years, Genson is currently defending rapper R. Kelly on charges of having sex with an underage girl. Kelly's trial will finally take place May 9, according to Genson, who quipped: "It has to take place sometime."

Genson was co-counsel in last year's trial of Canadian newspaper publisher Conrad Black, who was accused of mail fraud and obstruction of justice.

Although Genson was supposed to be second chair on the defense team, he wound up questioning 24 of the 28 witnesses and handling almost the entire closing argument.

On the day in early March that Black was scheduled to be sent to a federal prison in Florida on a six-year sentence, Genson was still critical of Canadian lead lawyer Eddie Greenspan's courtroom performance. "He was a very bright man and an extraordinarily good lawyer in Canada, but they can't work at this speed," he said.

The son of a Chicago bail bondsman, Genson remembers driving his father to police stations at night and sitting in courtrooms, listening to trial lawyers.

After graduating from Northwestern University Law School, he scrambled for clients, handling up to 100 trials a year. He still keeps a grueling pace, despite having suffered for years from dystonia, a neurological disorder that makes walking difficult, especially when he is tired or under stress.

Genson wears an arm sling while recuperating from recent shoulder surgery – the latest in a string of orthopedic surgeries related to his neurological condition. An electric wheelchair sits next to his desk in his office on the 14th floor of the 19th century Monadnock Building, across from the Federal Center.

Still, he has no thought of retiring. "Trial law is an all-encompassing kind of profession," he said. "It's your whole life when you're at trial. There's no such thing as sleeping with any regularity because you're always waking up with ideas. There's no such thing as weekends. When you occasionally go to a movie, you're thinking about what you should be doing the next day.

"A good trial lawyer just doesn't develop a whole lot of interests," he added. "So, what would I do if I retired?"

Despite his protestations, Genson has an obvious interest in art and antiques. The eclectic decorations in his office include: cowboy paintings by an art forger who testified as a government witness in one of his trials; a 19th Century desk he bought in London; a 16th Century Spanish credenza; and a portrait of Clarence Darrow, his idol.

Genson has a murder trial coming up in April, a money laundering trial set for June and a Medicaid fraud trial later this summer.

"I'll retire when they start laughing at me," he said. "So far, that hasn't happened."

Steven R. Hunter

Hunter, 45, knew from a young age he wanted to be a criminal lawyer. He remembers being inspired by the story of Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"Something about defending the underdog just appealed to me," Hunter said.

Originally from Grosse Isle, Mich., Hunter graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1997 and headed for Chicago. "I knew I wanted to be in Chicago," Hunter said. "To me, Chicago is the greatest city in the world."

But without any connections, it wasn't easy. Hunter worked as an immigration lawyer for Catholic Charities, and then landed a job with the public defenders' office.

He spent eight and a half years defending child abusers, juveniles and street gang members. "I was dealing with people who were whipping their children with extension rods and coat hangers," he recalled.

Overloaded with cases and long hours, Hunter left in 1986 to start his own practice. He qualified for the federal trial bar and was appointed to the federal defenders' panel.

He recently defended Anthony Calabrese (no relation to Frank Calabrese), an alleged mob hit man who was convicted of armed robbery. He also represented Eural Black, a Chicago police officer convicted in January of robbing drug dealers while on duty.

Although many of his cases still come through the panel, Hunter is getting an increasing number of calls from private clients. "It's really a slow, grinding process where you start out small," said Hunter. "If you work hard enough for your clients, if you fight cases, as opposed to pleading everybody out, that snowballs, and eventually you wind up having a pretty good practice."

Thanks to Nora Tooher

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