Opening statements in the case against disgraced R&B superstar R. Kelly began Wednesday setting out their allegations in the clearest language.
“The defendant, Robert Kelly, had sex with several children,” Assistant American Atty said. Jason Julien told the jury. “He made videotapes of him having sex with children. And these two (co-)defendants, Derrel McDavid and Milton Brown, knew about it.”
In his heyday, Kelly was a high-flying Grammy-winning legend, Julien said. But he “had another side, a hidden side, a dark side, which – with the help of McDavid and Brown – he didn’t show the world.”
Julien characterized Kelly as a serial killer who had sex with minors hundreds of times, and made “extraordinary efforts” to cover it up when authorities opened the investigation.
Julien said the sex involved relationships with Kelly’s own goddaughter, “Jane,” including many encounters he captured on video. Jurors are expected to see portions of three videotapes of Kelly having sexual contact with Jane; in two of them, Kelly repeatedly refers to her “14-year-old” anatomy, Julien said.
Another videotape allegedly depicting child pornography will not be shown to the jury, prosecutors say because Kelly and the defendants successfully covered it up. But witnesses will testify to its existence, Julien said.
When authorities began investigating one of the tapes in the early 2000s, Kelly sent “Jane” and her family out of the country on a month-long trip, and when they returned, they lied to authorities about the tape on Kelly’s behalf. Over the next few years, they were drawn deeper into Kelly’s web, prosecutors said, at one point becoming largely financially dependent on him.
While Kelly awaited his trial in Cook County, he and co-defendants made extensive efforts to find and hide other ties of him to “Jane,” prosecutors said, including a payout that occurred during the 2008 trial, they said.
Kelly’s attorney Jennifer Bonjean, in turn, urged the jury to consider whether Kelly herself could be a victim: “Of financial exploitation, extortion,” she said.
“There are strong drivers,” she said. “The government’s case really depends on the testimonies of liars, extortionists, people involved in the pornography trade.”
Bonjean acknowledged that many of the jurors said they were familiar with Kelly and some of the charges against him.
“(Prosecutors) believe their evidence will show that he is a serial child sexual abuser. That’s what they believe,” Bonjean said. “And it’s true that Mr. Kelly is imperfect. It is true that on his journey from poverty to stardom, he stumbled along the way. It’s important if the government wants to portray him as a monster that you remember we’re talking about a human. We beg you to control those emotions.”
Some of the charges against Kelly relate to videotaped evidence, which is difficult to disprove. Other counts will instead depend largely on witness statements.
Bonjean emphatically reminded the jurors to review each criminal charge against Kelly individually.
Kelly huddled at the defense table during the opening statements, dressed in a dark blue suit and light blue tie. For the most part, he seemed to be staring straight ahead, even as Bonjean reintroduced him to the jury, sitting to his left in the courtroom.
During the prosecutors’ opening remarks, he sometimes shook his head slightly. And when Bonjean told the judges he didn’t expect any special treatment, he nodded.
In the opening statement on behalf of McDavid, attorney Vadim Glozman said the former company chief was acting only on behalf of Kelly’s experienced 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 business owner for a superstar is not a crime. Being successful in your endeavors is not a crime,” Glozman said.
And in the early 2000s, McDavid had every reason to believe the tape in the middle of the Cook County case was illegal, Glozman said.
“Because he believed that, it was never his intention to obstruct justice,” he said.
McDavid will take the stand and testify on his behalf, Glozman said.
The opening statements began after two full days of jury selection. The 12 judges and six deputies were sworn in at the end of Tuesday. They are expected to hear evidence and arguments over the next four weeks.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber took the bench around 10 a.m. with a rather ominous proclamation: “It’s never meant to be easy,” he said.
A juror called to say she had developed a medical problem and wanted to be fired. Leinenweber apologized and replaced her with a deputy. The proceedings were further delayed because two other jurors were trapped on a late Metra train.
Leinenweber, who interviewed more than 100 potential jurors Monday and Tuesday, fired nearly half for “reason,” mostly because they said they wouldn’t be fair or because jury duty would be a significant hardship.
Many of the panelists said they had heard of Kelly and the allegations against him before, but they could be honest. Some even said they’d seen parts of “Surviving R. Kelly” but hadn’t formed an opinion about Kelly herself.
The final panel was selected after prosecutors and attorneys for Kelly and his two co-defendants used their coercive strikes to further narrow the jury pool.
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Things got tricky on Tuesday when Kelly’s lead attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, successfully challenged three of the prosecution’s black jurors’ strikes, claiming they were based solely on race.
She said prosecutors showed a pattern against black jurors that was “pretty troubling,” though US Assistant Attorney Jeannice Appeneng said they had reasons to remove the jurors that had nothing to do with race.
On the other hand, nearly every compelling defense attack involving the regular jury composition has been from a white — 12 in all. The defense also moved to punch an Asian woman and a black woman. Prosecutors, however, have not raised any challenges based on that racial division.
Kelly, 55, was charged with child pornography and obstruction of justice in a 2019 indictment alleging he conspired with others years ago to manipulate his Cook County trial by paying a teenage girl he sexually assaulted at a now infamous video tape.
Kelly’s former business manager, Derrel McDavid, and another employee, Milton “June” Brown, who, according to the indictment, had a plan to buy back incriminating sex tapes taken from Kelly’s collection and hide years of alleged sexual abuse of underage girls.