Nicole Blank Becker, a former Michigan sex crimes prosecutor who spent nearly two decades working with victims, remembers watching “Surviving R. Kelly” and being mortified by the deluge of sexual abuse allegations against the R&B star.
She watched the 2019 Lifetime documentary series while sitting next to her husband, and felt outraged when he remarked at one point, in disbelief, “This did not happen. This is bullshit.”
“I’m like, ‘Shut up!'” Becker said. “This is my field! What are you talking about?”
Now, Becker is one of Kelly’s most public champions as the only woman on his defense team. She’s often photographed in designer outfits, her long black hair slicked into a low ponytail, outside the Brooklyn federal court building. Though she has kept quiet in court in recent weeks, it was Becker who last month gave the defense’s opening statement in the singer’s sex-trafficking trial. And she’s sat next to Kelly throughout the proceedings, whispering in his ear as witnesses testified.
With that visibility comes criticism: An essay in The Cut accused Becker and defenders of various Hollywood sex pests of throwing women “under the bus in the service of terrible men.” Becker laughed off the condemnation in a recent interview with Insider.
“First of all, sometimes the victims are men,” she said.
She’s right: Two men were among the 11 accusers who testified in court that Kelly sexually abused them, many of them when they were underage. Prosecutors have alleged that the singer, who’s charged with racketeering and violating the anti-sex-trafficking law known as the Mann Act, masterminded a decades-long operation to target girls and women and recruit them for sex. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The jury has heard a whirlwind of disturbing testimony about Kelly’s treatment of women and staff over the past four weeks. In court, Becker has called the accusers “liars,” characterized their relationships with Kelly as “beautiful,” and suggested that the women who didn’t like Kelly’s behavior should have walked away.
It’s a seemingly inexplicable pivot for a veteran sex crimes prosecutor to defend a disgraced celebrity in one of the most high-profile federal trials of the year. But for Becker, and those who know her, it’s a natural move for an ambitious lawyer.
“Friends of ours, and friends of mine that know I’m friends with Nicole, ask me all the time, ‘How does she represent someone like R. Kelly?'” one friend and former colleague, Dana Marcus, told Insider. “And my answer is always the same: her father’s a defense lawyer. And so she has grown up knowing and understanding that even if someone is accused of something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the accuser’s is the only story.”
Becker, who declined to discuss the details of Kelly’s case, said her opinion on the singer has done a 180-degree flip since she first learned of the allegations against him. She got involved in the case just months after the Lifetime series aired, and she’s counting on jurors to be as open-minded about Kelly as she was.
“The more I learned and the more I dug in and did my research, which included a lot of different things, my entire thought process changed,” she said. “The facts are what drew me in, and because I’m so big on being by the law — what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong — when I saw the injustice, I committed.”
Becker told Insider that doing defense work for alleged rapists and child molesters is certainly “not for everyone.”
The details of the cases are often gruesome or salacious, she said, and her clients can grow distraught to the point of being suicidal. But when she goes home to her twin children each night, she usually isn’t thinking about the cases she handled earlier that day. Becker said she’s always had an “insane ability” to compartmentalize, which was on display as she pivoted from laughing as she recalled her father’s advice never to become a defense attorney to gravely discussing the weight of the charges her clients face.
Becker said she became a defense attorney and launched her private practice in 2017, after spending years as the chief of Macomb County’s sex crimes unit and child abuse unit.
“I realized it was wonderful, but there was nowhere else for me to go. I was as high as I could go,” she said. “I also recognized the other side.”
Becker said some of the warrants that crossed her desk in Macomb County over the years had made her question whether Michigan’s laws were fair to the accused. There were too many times when, she said, her unit would investigate alleged victims’ claims, only to discover they were untrue.
‘Justice’ doesn’t always mean ‘get cases dismissed.’ It may mean my client has got to at some point pay the price for [their] actions.Nicole Blank Becker
The office commonly received cases involving young men accused of sexually abusing 12- or 13-year-old girls, Becker said. In her telling, many of the underage girls had created Tinder profiles, convincingly passed themselves off as adults, and began sexual relationships with unwitting men who were 18 or older.
“They end up having a relationship and they end up having sex, and clearly that is not okay,” Becker said. “If someone’s misrepresenting themselves, which has happened so many times, the 18-year-old is still responsible. And this 18-year-old is going to be a sex offender for the rest of their lives.”
Becker said a misunderstood part of sex crimes defense work is the notion that she goes to trial each day with the goal of getting sex offenders acquitted of heinous crimes. Many of her clients are indeed guilty, she said, and have admitted it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a skilled lawyer to help them navigate what comes next.
“It’s a question, unfortunately or fortunately, of minimizing damages with folks,” she said. “What I’m most proud of is my ability to use my knowledge to get justice for my clients. And listen, ‘justice’ doesn’t always mean ‘get cases dismissed.’ It may mean my client has got to at some point pay the price for [their] actions.”
A lackluster start at trial
Becker’s prosecutorial credentials would appear to be an advantage in defending a major star accused of a monstrous array of sexual abuses.
But Kelly’s is also her first federal trial after rebranding as a defense attorney focusing exclusively on sex crimes, and a former federal prosecutor who’s been watching the case closely said a series of missteps in court may have damaged Becker’s credibility with the jury.
In her opening statement, Becker spoke for hours and appeared at times flustered and disoriented. In one possible Freudian slip, she told the jury to find her client guilty, though she corrected herself moments later.
Judge Ann Donnelly interrupted or sustained objections against Becker multiple times that day. Becker also repeated the words “ladies and gentlemen” over 100 times.
“She was making mistake over mistake,” said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, who has been following Kelly’s trial. “It hasn’t been a good start for her so far.”
Later, during Becker’s cross-examinations — of which there have been few — she came across as far too accusatory toward witnesses, Rahmani said. When questioning one accuser early in the trial, who said she had a six-month relationship with Kelly when she was just 17, Becker repeatedly framed the allegations as the result of the accuser’s own decisions, apparently faulting her for answering the singer’s calls and consenting to sex.
The accuser, identified only as “Stephanie,” said she felt that Kelly had “put the fear of God” in her and she had no choice but to obey him.
“It was just a bad look,” Rahmani said. “Sometimes as a prosecutor, you’re used to being so aggressive that you don’t realize that when you’re on the defense side, and when you’re talking about victims of sexual abuse, you’ve really got to tone it down a bit. That’s the type of thing that can really inflame a jury.”
Becker’s colleague Deveraux Cannick handled the vast majority of cross-examination, while another attorney, Calvin Scholar, has been presenting witnesses in the singer’s defense. A third defense lawyer, Tom Farinella, has mostly stayed quiet throughout the trial.
The problem with treating Kelly’s case like a typical sex crimes case is that the trial at its core is about whether the singer ran a criminal enterprise that recruited women for sex, according to Mike Leonard, who up until June was a member of Kelly’s defense team.
Leonard declined to comment on Becker’s role on Kelly’s defense team but spoke to Insider broadly about the challenges of defending a client against federal racketeering charges.
“It’s not just the average, ‘Let’s get up and blame the victim and say they’re lying,'” Leonard said. “You gotta do a lot more than that. You’ve got to approach it much more nuanced, because it’s a RICO case and the jury instructions will be all about RICO,” he added, referring to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
She has grown up knowing and understanding that even if someone is accused of something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the accuser’s is the only story.Dana Marcus
Even before the jury was seated, Kelly’s case took a chaotic detour. His defense team suddenly imploded in June when Leonard and another attorney, Steve Greenberg, filed a motion asking to withdraw from the case, citing infighting among Kelly’s team. Greenberg told Donnelly the attorneys had jostled over who would get to perform big trial roles, such as opening and closing statements and witness cross-examinations.
Kelly told the judge he fired Greenberg and Leonard. The shake-up left a four-person team to defend Kelly against charges that could put him in prison for the rest of his life if he’s convicted.
Amid the controversy, Donnelly had also questioned Becker about potential conflicts of interest. The judge asked about her communications with two of Kelly’s former girlfriends, Azriel Clary and Joycelyn Savage, as well as an investigation into a Kelly associate who pleaded guilty to trying to bribe Clary after she began cooperating with prosecutors early last year.
Becker denied in court that she ever gave Clary and Savage legal advice. She told Donnelly that although she escorted the women to a 2019 court appearance, and later communicated with Savage through text, FaceTime, and in-person conversations, she had reminded both women that she was “Mr. Kelly’s lawyer, not yours.” Becker also denied any involvement in efforts to pay off Clary.
Friends and enemies
As a child, Becker would often watch television coverage of her father, Daniel Blank, a Michigan criminal defense attorney, when he handled high-profile cases.
Blank told Insider he initially discouraged his daughter from leaving the prosecutor’s office and entering private practice, believing her former job might be a more lasting, comfortable position. He said she’s since proved him wrong.
“Being a criminal defense lawyer, especially in high-profile cases, is exceedingly strenuous,” Blank said, noting that the Kelly case is his daughter’s first high-publicity trial as a defense attorney. “I think she’s handling it pretty well.”
Several of Becker’s former colleagues described her as meticulously prepared, tenacious, and talented at building relationships and trust. Though none said they were following news of Kelly’s trial, or Becker’s performance in the courtroom, they expressed confidence in her abilities.
“She was able to think on her feet. She wasn’t rattled by the defense or the defendants,” Marcus, Becker’s former colleague who now works as a personal injury attorney, told Insider. “She came off as very confident and very bright. She was hard-working. She would outwork the opponents on every case.”
Marcus said she worked with Becker in the early years of their careers after overlapping at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. Becker was the one who initially taught Marcus how to try cases, she said, and she wasn’t surprised when she learned her old friend would be representing Kelly because Becker always liked a challenge.
Becker’s experience as a sex crimes prosecutor is invaluable to clients when it comes to anticipating what prosecutors will do, said Michael Balian, another colleague who’s been working on a child molestation case with her for three years.
“It gives you insight into not what the next move is, but what’s going to happen in two or three moves and how to prepare for it,” Balian said. “She knows what the deal is, how they do it, how they question, what evidence they have, where to get evidence, what evidence is missing.”
Balian added that Becker has an astonishing ability to get people talking, establish a rapport, and extract information from them that “people would normally never tell you.”
She was making mistake over mistake. It hasn’t been a good start for her so far.Neama Rahmani
“I’ve been on calls with her where we’ll third-party a person, and she’ll start talking to them, and they’ll start answering things you never thought you would even find out the answer to,” he said.
In person, Becker is gregarious and confident, with a spirited laugh and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. She’s also made comical appearances on her husband’s TikTok account (he has more than 3 million followers), rolling her eyes in one video as he croons, “You’re beautiful, intelligent, tough, caring, and honest — that’s the reason I call you my bitch … my bitchity bitch bitchy bitchity bitch bitch bitch.”
It’s easy to see how Becker could win over someone like Kelly. But one of her former colleagues on the defense team was less charmed.
“My mother once told me if I have nothing good to say, don’t say anything. So I think it should be left at she’s an incompetent, backstabbing, awful human being,” Steve Greenberg, one of the attorneys who left the Brooklyn case in June, told Insider.
Becker told Insider that Greenberg was simply disgruntled.
“It’s just so sad,” Becker said. “His ego is clearly still hurt that much that he was fired. And somehow it’s all my fault.”
Becker said that kind of vitriol comes with the territory of being a sex crimes defense lawyer. But she said she feels vindicated when she hears comments from clients like, “You know, Nicole, I never thought I’d be on a website looking for you.”
“I’m everyone’s worst enemy because I’m representing people that are being accused of very heinous crimes, which I understand,” she said. “But God forbid your child, or your friend is falsely accused of something like this. I’m going to be your best friend.”
Jacob Shamsian and Haven Orecchio-Egresitz contributed reporting.