Jurors in R. Kelly’s federal child pornography trial had been told the evidence in the case would transport them back in time, but they probably didn’t think they’d end up watching the 1998 Grammy Awards.
“Every once in a while a song comes along that touches us all in a way that’s out of the ordinary,” Kelsey Grammer said on the clip from the show that aired in court on Wednesday. Then the curtain rose, the camera zoomed in, and jurors saw Kelly at the height of her glory: 31, awash in blue spotlights, in front of a giant video of a hovering bald eagle.
Kelly’s memorable performance of “I Believe I Can Fly,” which won multiple Grammy Awards, was played by prosecutors to bolster his image as a powerhouse superstar. At the time of the video, however, Kelly allegedly sexually assaulted her young goddaughter for two years, part of a pattern of sexual misconduct that has now landed him in court for a second federal trial.
As Kelly’s melodious tones filled the grand ceremonial courtroom of Dirksen’s US courthouse, his lead attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, seemed visibly thrilled that the jury was hearing one of her client’s most recognized hits. She placed her hand on Kelly’s shoulder in solidarity as they watched.
But federal prosecutors said Kelly’s international stardom hid a dark side, which the world would soon see.
“The defendant, Robert Kelly, had sex with multiple children,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Julien told the jury during his opening statements at the trial, where Kelly is accused of conspiring with two former associates to cover up his sexual misdeeds. “He made videos of himself having sex with children. …And he kept those videos handy because if the world found out he was having sex with children, he would be in a lot of trouble and it would ruin his career.
In his opening remarks, Bonjean urged jurors to consider whether Kelly himself might be the victim of financial abuse and extortion by bad actors seeking to capitalize on his fame.
“There are strong motivations there,” she said. “The government’s case really rests on the testimony of liars, extortionists, people who trafficked in pornography.”
Kelly, 55, was charged three years ago with child pornography and conspiracy to obstruct justice, alleging he conspired to rig his 2008 Cook County trial by paying off his then-goddaughter after she was allegedly sexually assaulted on a now infamous videotape.
Kelly’s former business manager, Derrel McDavid, and another associate, Milton “June” Brown, who the indictment alleges conspired to redeem incriminating sex tapes that had been extracted from Kelly’s collection and hiding years of alleged sexual abuse, are also on trial. of underage girls.
After two days of jury selection, the trial began in earnest on Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, who said it is expected to last about four weeks.
When Leinenweber took the bench around 10 a.m. Wednesday, he had a rather ominous proclamation: “Things are never meant to be easy,” he said.
A juror called to say she had developed a medical condition and wanted to be fired. Leinenweber excused her and replaced her with an alternate, changing the racial makeup of the jury to seven white and five black. Proceedings were further delayed when two other jurors were stuck on an overdue Metra train.
Later in the trial, jurors are expected to hear testimony from Kelly’s former goddaughter, who is now 37, as well as four other women who were underage when Kelly allegedly sexually assaulted them.
At the center of the case are three videotapes – parts of which will be shown to jurors – allegedly showing Kelly having sexual contact with her goddaughter, who goes by the alias “Jane”. In two of them, Kelly repeatedly references his “14-year-old” anatomy, Julien said in his opening statement.
Another video allegedly showing child pornography will not be shown to jurors because Kelly and the defendants successfully covered it up, prosecutors say. But witnesses will testify to its existence, said Julien.
Kelly sat hunched over at the defense table throughout opening statements, wearing a dark blue suit and light blue tie. For the most part, he seemed to fix his gaze straight ahead, even when Bonjean reintroduced him to the jury, who sit to his left in the courtroom.
Sometimes during prosecutors’ opening remarks, he shook his head slightly. And when Bonjean told jurors he didn’t expect any special treatment, Kelly nodded.
Prosecutors said that when authorities began investigating one of the tapes in the early 2000s, Kelly sent “Jane” and her family on a month-long trip out of the country, and when they returned they lied to authorities about the tape at Kelly’s request. Over the next few years, they were drawn deeper into Kelly’s network, in part because Jane’s father was a guitarist in Kelly’s band, prosecutors said. At some point, the family became largely financially dependent on him.
As Kelly awaited trial in Cook County, he and co-defendants went to extensive lengths to locate and conceal other recordings of him with ‘Jane’, prosecutors said, including a payoff that occurred during the 2008 trial, they said.
Kelly and her team went to “extraordinary efforts” to recover the incriminating videotapes and keep people from talking about their existence, prosecutors said. They paid huge sums, including a payout at Kelly’s 2008 trial, according to Julien.
One such tape was returned by a man named Keith Murrell, Julien said. When he returned it, Brown told Murrell he gave them the “golden egg,” and after McDavid watched the tape, he gave Murrell a hug, Julien said.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys have painted Murrell and other government witnesses as lying blackmailers – extortionists who stole sex tapes, tried to get rich and will now testify about everything prosecutors want in exchange for immunity.
In opening statements on behalf of McDavid, attorney Vadim Glozman said the former entrepreneur only acted at the behest of Kelly’s accomplished attorneys and investigators, none of whom would have risked their careers to cover up child pornography.
“Doing your job as a lawyer and doing your job as a superstar entrepreneur is not a crime. Succeeding in your efforts is not a crime,” Glozman said.
And by the early 2000s, McDavid had every reason to believe the tape at the center of the Cook County case was illegitimate, Glozman said.
“Because he believed that, there was never any intent to obstruct justice,” he said.
McDavid will take the stand and testify on his own behalf, Glozman said.
Brown, meanwhile, was just an assistant, a small cog in a big machine, his attorney, Kathleen Leon, said in her opening statement to the jury. Kelly deliberately kept all of her “private matters” secret from lower-level employees, and when rumors began circulating that Kelly was being blackmailed with a doctored sex tape, Brown believed them, Leon said. .
As for Kelly, Bonjean acknowledged that many jurors said they were aware of some of the allegations against him, but she warned them not to accept the simplistic portrayal of a “monster” that had been painted by prosecutors.
“It is true that Mr. Kelly is flawed,” she said. “It’s true that on his journey from poverty to stardom he stumbled along the way. It’s important when the government wants to paint him as a monster that you remember we’re talking about a human being We implore you to keep these emotions under control.
The first witness for prosecutors was Darrel Turner, a psychologist who has worked with victims and child sex offenders and was called to give context to the victims’ accounts later in the trial.
Turner said it’s extremely common for victims of child sexual abuse to delay reporting the abuse for years. And victims who have been “cured” frequently report feelings of love and protection for their abusers, he said. False allegations are extremely rare and usually arise in the context of divorce or custody proceedings, according to Turner’s testimony.
Towards the end of the day, prosecutors called retired Chicago police detective Daniel Everett, who first investigated Kelly in October 2000 after an anonymous complaint was filed, alleging he had sex with Jane. Everett says he interviewed the girl with her parents at a small shoe store in Oak Park.
“Jane informed me that Robert Kelly was her godfather and that he had never abused her and would never do anything like that to her,” he said. Everett said he filed a report saying the abuse allegation was “without merit.”
In February 2002, Everett said, then-Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis handed over a sex tape he had been sent, allegedly depicting Kelly and Jane — the same tape that was at the center of the Cook County charges. .
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Everett said he immediately recognized the girl on the tape as Jane. A few days later, police searched Kelly’s home on West George Street, where Everett said he noticed several similarities to scenes that appeared on the video.
“After watching the video, it was very obvious that this was the setting in which it took place,” Everett said. He said police tried to re-interview Jane and her family, but were unable to contact them again.
Everett will return to the witness box for cross-examination on Thursday.
Several Kelly supporters were in the courtroom to watch the proceedings, including a woman with her name tattooed on her upper arm. As the court adjourned and Kelly was taken back into custody, many of her fans spoke up, “Goodbye, Robert!”
He waved at them as he left.