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 find themselves watching the 1998 Grammy Awards.
“Every once in a while, a song comes along that touches us all in a way that is out of the ordinary,” actor Kelsey Grammer said on the snippet of the show played in court Wednesday. Then the curtain lifted, the camera zoomed in, and jurors saw Kelly at the height of his fame: 31 years old, flooded with blue spotlights, in front of a giant video of a soaring bald eagle.
Kelly’s memorable performance of “I Believe I Can Fly,” which won multiple Grammy Awards, was played by prosecutors to reinforce the image of him as a powerful superstar. At the time of the video, however, Kelly had allegedly been sexually assaulting his 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 mellifluous tones filled the large ceremonial courtroom at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, his lead attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, seemed visibly pleased 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, one that 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 stands accused of conspiring with two former associates to cover up his sexual misdeeds. “He made videotapes of himself having sex with children. … And he kept those videos close, because if the world found out that he was having sex with children, he’d be in a lot of trouble, and it would ruin his career.”
In her opening remarks, Bonjean urged jurors to consider whether Kelly might be a victim himself of financial exploitation and extortion by bad actors looking to capitalize on his fame.
“There are strong motivators out there,” she said. “The government’s case really does hinge on the testimony of liars, extortionists, people who engaged in the business of trafficking pornography.”
Kelly, 55, was indicted three years ago on charges of 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.
Also facing trial are Kelly’s former business manager, Derrel McDavid, and another associate, Milton “June” Brown, who, according to the indictment, schemed to buy back incriminating sex tapes that had been taken from Kelly’s collection and hide years of alleged sexual abuse of underage girls.
After two days of jury selection, the trial kicked off in earnest Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, who has 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 intended to be easy,” he said.
One juror called to say she had developed a medical problem and wanted to be dismissed. Leinenweber excused her and replaced her with an alternate, changing the jury’s racial makeup to seven whites and five Blacks. Proceedings were further delayed when two other jurors were stuck on a late 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 minors when Kelly allegedly sexually assaulted them.
At the center of the case are three videotapes — portions of which will be shown to jurors — allegedly depicting Kelly having sexual contact with his goddaughter, who is being referred to by the pseudonym “Jane.” In two of them, Kelly repeatedly refers to her “14-year-old” anatomy, Julien said in his opening statement.
Another videotape allegedly depicting child pornography will not be shown to jurors because Kelly and the defendants successfully covered it up, according to prosecutors. But witnesses will testify about its existence, Julien said.
Kelly sat hunched at the defense table throughout opening statements, dressed in a dark blue suit and light blue tie. For the most part he appeared to be fixing his gaze straight ahead, even when Bonjean reintroduced him to the jury, which is seated to his left in the courtroom.
At times during prosecutors’ opening remarks, he shook his head slightly. And when Bonjean told jurors he was not expecting any special treatment, Kelly nodded.
Prosecutors said that when authorities started investigating one of the tapes in the early 2000s, Kelly sent “Jane” and her family on a monthlong trip out of the country, and when they got back, they lied to authorities about the tape at Kelly’s behest. Over the next few years they got drawn deeper into Kelly’s web, in part because Jane’s father was a guitar player in Kelly’s band, prosecutors said. At one point, the family became largely financially dependent upon him.
As Kelly was awaiting trial in Cook County, he and the co-defendants made wide-ranging efforts to locate and cover up other tapes of him with “Jane,” prosecutors said, including one payoff that happened during the 2008 trial, they said.
Kelly and his team went to “extraordinary lengths” to get the incriminating videotapes back and keep people from speaking out about their existence, prosecutors said. They paid out huge sums, including one payout during 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 had given them the “golden egg,” and after McDavid watched the tape, he gave Murrell a hug, Julien said.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys painted Murrell and other government witnesses as lying blackmailers — extortionists who stole sex tapes, tried to get rich off of them, and now will testify to whatever prosecutors want in exchange for immunity.
In opening statements on behalf of McDavid, attorney Vadim Glozman said the former business manager 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 business manager to a superstar is not a crime. Being successful in your efforts is not a crime,” Glozman said.
And back in 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 intention to obstruct justice,” he said.
McDavid will take the stand and testify on his own behalf, Glozman said.
Brown, meanwhile, was merely an assistant, a small cog in a large machine, his attorney, Kathleen Leon, said in her opening statement to the jury. Kelly deliberately kept all his “private dealings” secret from lower-level employees, and when rumors started circulating that Kelly was being blackmailed with a doctored sex tape, Brown believed them, Leon said.
As for Kelly, Bonjean acknowledged that many of the jurors said they were familiar with some of the allegations against him, but she warned them not to accept the simplistic portrait of a “monster” that had been portrayed by prosecutors.
“It is true that Mr. Kelly is imperfect,” she said. “It is true that on his journey from poverty to stardom that he stumbled along the way. It is important when the government wants to paint him as a monster that you remember we are talking about a human being. We implore you to keep those emotions in check.”
Prosecutors’ first witness was Darrel Turner, a psychologist who has worked with child sex abuse victims and offenders and was called to give context to the victims’ accounts later on in the trial.
Turner said it is extremely common for victims of underage sexual abuse to delay reporting that abuse for years. And victims who have been “groomed” frequently report feelings of love and protectiveness toward their abusers, he said. False allegations are extremely rare and usually come up in the context of divorce or custody proceedings, according to Turner’s testimony.
Near 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 that he was having 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 never abused her and never would do anything like that to her,” he said. Everett said he filed a report noting the abuse allegation was “unfounded.”
In February 2002, Everett said, then-Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis turned over a sex tape that had been sent to him allegedly depicting Kelly and Jane — the same tape that was the focus of the Cook County charges.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
Everett said he immediately recognized the girl on the tape as Jane. Days later, police searched Kelly’s home on West George Street, where Everett said he noticed several similarities with scenes that were on the video.
“After viewing the video it as very obvious that this was the setting where it took place,” Everett testified. He said police tried to re-interview Jane and her family, but were unable to contact them again.
Everett will be back on the witness stand for cross-examination on Thursday.
Several Kelly supporters were in the courtroom to view proceedings, including one woman with his name tattooed on her upper arm. As court adjourned and Kelly was escorted back into custody, many of his fans spoke up: “Goodbye, Robert!”
He gave them a wave as he walked out.