Fearing the coronavirus, Michael Avenatti, R. Kelly and other celebrity inmates seek early release


Convicted Los Angeles lawyer Michael Avenatti urged a court on Monday to release him from a federal jail in New York after a judge agreed that his health could be jeopardized by the spread of the coronavirus among inmates.

The former attorney for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels is part of a growing group of high-profile prisoners, including comedian Bill Cosby and financier Bernie Madoff, who say they should be set free to protect them from COVID-19.

The pleas for mercy come amid mounting concerns that jails and prisons could serve as dangerous breeding grounds for the coronavirus. An inmate and four people who work in Los Angeles County jails have tested positive for COVID-19. After displaying symptoms Thursday, the inmate was taken to L.A. County-USC Medical Center.

Lawyers for R&B singer R. Kelly, 53, who is awaiting trial on charges of sexually exploiting underage girls, asked a federal judge last week to release him from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. “Requiring people to reside in a custodial jail setting is tantamount to making them drink poison,” they wrote.

R. Kelly hit with federal indictments in New York, Chicago
R. Kelly, left, wants out of the U.S. Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, citing concerns that COVID-19 is spreading among inmates.

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal attorney, asked a federal judge in New York to let him go home to serve the rest of his three-year sentence for campaign-finance and other crimes for fear that he’ll catch the deadly virus in prison. U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III turned him down.

“That Cohen would seek to single himself out for release to home confinement appears to be just another effort to inject himself into the news cycle,” Pauley wrote.

“Ten months into his prison term, it’s time that Cohen accept the consequences of his criminal convictions for serious crimes that had far reaching institutional harms,” the judge said.

On Twitter, Cohen, 53, who is serving his time at a prison in Otisville, N.Y., has posted an online petition by inmates calling on federal authorities to let nonviolent offenders complete their sentences in home confinement to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus. One inmate and one staff member at Otisville have tested positive.

Spokesmen for Madoff, 81, who’s serving a 150-year sentence for an immense Ponzi scheme, and Cosby, who is serving three to 10 years in prison for sexual assault, say they too should be released to spare them infection.

Cosby, 82, has no cell mate at the state prison outside Philadelphia where he’s locked up, his publicist Andrew Wyatt said. Cosby has a mask and eats meals in his cell, but is still vulnerable to infection in a facility where another inmate has tested positive, so he should be transferred to home confinement, Wyatt said.

“We just feel that it’s got to be sooner than later,” Wyatt said.

New York City, now the epicenter of America’s COVID-19 outbreak, has released about 650 inmates from its jails to curb the spread of the virus. At least 167 inmates and 114 correction staff have tested positive, according to city officials. Two jail staff members have died.

In the federal prison system, 28 inmates and 24 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Atty. Gen. William Barr directed the bureau last week to expand its use of home confinement for inmates “where appropriate.”

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca hopes to be one of them.

Baca is less than two months into a three-year term in a Texas prison following his conviction for thwarting a federal investigation into jail abuses on his watch. As a 77-year-old with Alzheimer’s, he “is part of the population most vulnerable to the virus,” his lawyer, Benjamin L. Coleman, wrote last week in court papers seeking Baca’s release.

Tekashi69, a 23-year-old Brooklyn rapper who is serving a two-year sentence for racketeering and other crimes, has asked a federal judge for early release, saying his asthma puts him at risk.

“If he contracts it, he would have a very tough time surviving it,” his lawyer Lance Lazzaro said.

Colombian drug kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, 81, has also asked to be freed early.

Napa Valley winemaker Agustin Huneeus Jr., who was doing five months in prison for paying to rig his daughter’s USC entrance exam and sneak her into the school as a bogus water polo player, was released five weeks early over coronavirus concerns. But L.A. businessman Devin Sloane, also convicted in the college admissions scandal, was denied similar relief.

Avenatti, 49, who was convicted last month of trying to extort more than $20 million from the sportswear giant Nike and is set to be sentenced in June, is awaiting trial in two other criminal cases, one in New York and one in Santa Ana.

He has asked U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana to release him based on concern he will catch COVID-19 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where three inmates have tested positive for the virus.

After his bail was revoked in January, Avenatti “languished in solitary confinement in a filthy, windowless, unventilated 10 x 8 cage for 23 or 24 hours for the first 30 days,” with meals slipped to him through a slot, his attorney H. Dean Steward wrote in court papers.

He was moved to a 26-man dorm, where he shared a cell with a man who came down with “a severe cough and fever,” Steward said. Avenatti, who reported three rats in his cell, suffered a bout of pneumonia six months ago and remains susceptible to lung infections, he wrote.

Prosecutors objected to Avenatti’s release, saying he was likely to resume committing financial crimes and posed a danger to the community.

On Friday, Selna found the spread of COVID-19 in New York was “a compelling reason” to grant Avenatti temporary release. But he declined to set him free unless he meets a list of conditions, including limits on his ability to transfer money or assets and assurance that he will remain in home detention “with no exceptions other than a medical emergency.”

On Monday, Avenatti’s lawyer proposed letting him fly immediately to Los Angeles to stay at the home of his friend Jay Manheimer for 90 days. As alternatives, he suggested a 14-day quarantine at a Hampton Inn in Brooklyn or at the New Jersey home of his brother-in-law Stephen Rodier before he departs for California.

Steward also said Avenatti would promise “not to engage in any financial transactions over $500.” Selna has not yet issued a final ruling on Avenatti’s request for release.