Wednesday, September 28, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Jury hears opening arguments in second R. Kelly federal trial

Federal prosecutors accuse the former R&B star of producing at least four videos featuring him engaging in sex acts with underage girls.

CHICAGO (CN) — Attorneys in Chicago made their opening statements in R. Kelly's federal sexual abuse and child pornography trial on Wednesday, following two days of jury selection.

Federal prosecutors claim the disgraced singer was a sexual predator who had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars covering up his videotaped abuse of teenage girls.

"Kelly had... a hidden side. A dark side. A side that he and [his co-defendants Derrel] McDavid and [Milton] Brown, did not allow the world to see," U.S. Attorney Jason Julien told the jury. "Kelly had sex, repeatedly, with children."

Kelly faces 13 federal charges in total, including four counts of sexual exploitation of children, one count of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, three counts related to child pornography and five counts of criminal sexual abuse.

The trial in Chicago follows Kelly's sex-trafficking conviction in Brooklyn federal court in September 2021. That court sentenced the 55-year-old former singer to 30 years behind bars in June.

The Chicago trial was initially meant to precede the Brooklyn case. Prosecutors from the Northern District of Illinois first indicted Kelly in July 2019, along with McDavid and Brown, for allegedly producing, distributing and/or receiving four pornographic videos between 1998 and 2007. All four videos featured a girl given the pseudonym "Jane," who was 14 when a 31-year-old Kelly allegedly made the tapes in 1998. The indictment also accuses Kelly and McDavid of working to cover up the Jane videos for over a decade.

A trial date for the Chicago case was initially set for April 2020, with Kelly's trial in Brooklyn set to begin a month later. The Covid-19 pandemic caused both trials to be pushed back several times, and while the Brooklyn case got underway in August 2021, Kelly's attorneys successfully managed to delay his Chicago trial until this past Monday.

His lead attorney Jennifer Bonjean also unsuccessfully tried to get most of the charges dismissed in May, claiming the statute of limitations to prosecute Kelly's alleged sex crimes had long since expired. The incidents his sex crime charges are based on all occurred between 1998 and 2007, Bonjean argued, so prosecutors only had until 2012 to indict him.

"Consistent with the preceding authority and principles of law... the superseding indictment that charge Defendant with conspiring to and receiving child pornography is subject to the general five-year statement of limitations because those offenses do not necessarily entail the sexual abuse of a child," Bonjean wrote in her motion to dismiss. "As such, the statute of limitations for those offenses expired no later than 2012, making those counts time barred."

R. Kelly's defense attorneys, Jennifer Bonjean, left, and Ashley Cohen, walk into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, a Ronald Reagan appointee, disagreed. He denied the motion to dismiss in June, pointing out that the federal statute of limitations for charges of sexually abusing a minor was amended both in 2003 and 2006, and now extends to "the life of the child or ten years after the offense, whichever is longer." Leinenweber also pointed out that when the statute was amended in 2006, the original statute of limitations on the charges Kelly now faces had not yet expired.

"Applying the current version of [the statute] does not impair any of the Defendants’ rights because the statute was amended before the original limitations period expired. This Court will not disturb well-settled law to create new statutory rights where none currently exist," Leinenweber wrote.

Having failed to get the case thrown out, Kelly's attorneys on Monday asked Leinenweber to instead exclude any potential juror who had seen the 2019 docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly." The series was so "incredibly inflammatory," Bonjean argued, that no one who saw it could remain neutral as one of Kelly's jurors.

"It is a fiction… that any [such juror] could be impartial," Bonjean said, adding that seeing the series was also akin to providing jurors a "heap of discovery to dig through."

ADVERTISEMENT

Leinenweber agreed to take the argument into consideration during jury selection, and repeatedly asked potential jurors if they had seen the series. But he disagreed that merely seeing the series should be disqualifying. "It's one thing if they avidly watched each episode, but if they've only seen one or two episodes," it's probably insufficient to exclude them, Leinenweber said.

Jury selection ended up lasting through Tuesday afternoon, during which time over 100 potential jurors were questioned. The final 12-person jury consists of four Black women, four white women, two white men and two Black men.

In their opening arguments on Wednesday, prosecutors told the jury that the case revolved around Kelly's four alleged sex tapes and five of his alleged victims, including Jane. The four victims besides Jane were given the trial pseudonyms "Brittany," "Lisa," "Pinky" and "Neah," against the objections of Kelly's defense team. Julien warned the jury they would have to watch the Jane tapes during the course of the trial.

"It's important for you to watch those videos," Julien said, though he emphasized that they would only see "snippets" of them.

In the narrative Julien laid out for the jury, Kelly first met Jane when she was 12 or 13 years old, and preceded to have sex with her "hundreds of times." Julien said Jane went along with it, and eventually convinced Brittany, her 16-year-old friend, to have a threesome with her and Kelly, due to her being star-struck and because she thought Kelly could help her own music career ambitions.

The relationship soon turned abusive, Julien said, with Kelly attempting to control the movements of the young women and prevent them from associating with other men. After Kelly's alleged sex tapes leaked in 2001, prosecutors say he pressured Jane and her family to flee the country, fearing reprisal from the subsequent law enforcement investigation. Kelly, Julien said, was also conspiring with McDavid and Brown to recover the tapes and cover up his sexual misconduct. McDavid is Kelly's former business manager and Brown is his former personal assistant.

Julian said Kelly even eventually convinced Jane - and her father - to lie to a grand jury preceding Kelly's 2008 state trial in Cook County on 21 child pornography counts. Kelly was acquitted on all those counts.

Julien told the jury he was confident such an acquittal would not be happening in this trial.

"We have a burden to prove this indictment beyond a reasonable doubt," Julien said. "We're going to prove to you, all 13 counts, beyond a reasonable doubt."

Bonjean provided a different narrative. In her opening statements, she painted Kelly as being taken advantage of by some of his alleged victims who wanted a piece of his wealth and fame. She also decried the alleged sex tapes as having "no evidentiary value," given their poor quality and the contradictory testimony surrounding them. She pointed out Jane and her father denied it was her in the video, under oath, multiple times to law enforcement and an Illinois grand jury prior to the 2008 trial.

If Jane changed her testimony for this trial, Bonjean said, she would be an admitted perjurer.

"The government's case really does rely on the testimony of liars, extortionists... people who, if you believe the government's case, deal in sex trafficking," she said.

Defense attorneys for McDavid and Brown, Vadim Glozman and Kathleen Leon, respectively, also delivered their opening statements on Wednesday. Both attorneys claimed their clients were simply Kelly's employees, carrying out their assigned tasks.

While federal prosecutors accused McDavid of actively bribing and threatening witnesses with knowledge of Kelly's sex tapes, Glozman said he was just doing the job of any good manager - protecting his client from malicious and unfounded rumors. He denied McDavid ever knew whether Kelly really was having sex with children.

"Throughout the course of this trial, you will see some awful things. Things that will make you want to look away. But ask yourself, what of these things did [McDavid] see before the 2008 trial? The answer is, none of it." Glozman said, adding, "Doing your job is not a crime... Derrel McDavid did his job."

Bonjean moved for a mistrial dismissal based on Glozman's comments. She argued Kelly's co-defendant intended to "point fingers" at him in ways he could not reasonably defend against, and that the three defendants' cases should be split up into separate trials. Leinenweber denied this motion immediately.

Similar to Glozman, Leon characterized Brown as a simple employee; a small-town man without a high school diploma who just did whatever odd jobs Kelly gave him - including retrieving random VHS tapes.

"They want you to believe that Milton Brown was part of this alleged conspiracy. But the evidence, or lack thereof, will show that he was just an assistant... he had no knowledge of any conspiracy," Leon said.

She also urged the jury to consider hindsight bias. What seems obviously suspicious to them would not have occurred to Brown in the early 2000s, as an uneducated man who didn't want to risk his employment by poking into his boss' privacy.

"Brown followed the rules. He kept his head down... this is the lens through which the evidence should be viewed," Leon said.

These comments kicked off what Leinenweber expects to be a four-week trial. Given Kelly's prior 30-year sentence from Brooklyn, it's already a possibility that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. But a conviction on even a handful of these 13 charges in Chicago could add decades to his sentence.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...