Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
R. Kelly trial shifting to singer’s defense
Prosecutors to wrap their case in federal racketeering trial
After four weeks and an avalanche of witnesses portraying R. Kelly as the predatory ringleader of a long-running criminal enterprise, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are expected to rest their case in chief as soon as Monday.
And then, all eyes will turn to the singer’s defense.
The defense’s case is expected to be significantly shorter. One of Kelly’s current girlfriends could testify. The defense is also likely to call an expert to refute Kelly’s doctor’s testimony regarding his sexual health.
The disgraced singer himself has the right to take the stand in his own defense, though that seems unlikely and inadvisable given that his last public statements in an interview with Gayle King led to a tempestuous, now-infamous outburst.
But Kelly’s current legal team has proved unpredictable, and there is a chance they put him on the stand if they think they need a Hail Mary. And the decision to testify technically lies solely with Kelly himself, so he could decide
to take the stand regardless of his attorneys’ advice.
But overall, as in most criminal trials, the bulk of their case has already come out in their cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, many of whom met Kelly in Chicago and interacted with him at his suburban mansion, his former residence at Trump Tower or the old Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s.
Through their questions, the defense has tried to paint a far different picture of the singer: Kelly as a soft-spoken gentleman who would stand up whenever a woman would enter the room, a generous boyfriend who showered his partners with money and gifts, now besieged by turncoat accusers who are lying out of greed or spite. Kelly was not the head of a criminal enterprise, they say — the group functioned more like a happy family.
Kelly is facing decades in prison if he is convicted in the racketeering case. Prosecutors allege that for decades he exploited his status as the “King of R&B” to draw vulnerable people into his orbit, then systematically manipulate and sexually abuse them. It is the first of Kelly’s many criminal cases to go to trial; he also faces federal charges in Chicago, as well as four separate Cook County indictments and a case in Minnesota.
So far, prosecutors’ evidence has largely fallen into two categories. There has been copious testimony from Kelly’s accusers, many of whom said they met with him in hopes of advancing their show business careers. Instead, they said, they found themselves pressured into unwanted sex; bound by strict rules about what they could wear, when they could use the bathroom and where they could move; and punished harshly when they disobeyed.
In addition, prosecutors have called as witnesses many of Kelly’s alleged enablers: managers, assistants and a “runner” who testified about the way Kelly treated his “girlfriends” and underlings. To prove their case, prosecutors must convince the jury that Kelly did not act alone, that in fact he was the head of an organized effort to help him prey on his alleged victims.
But the defense’s cross-examination has mostly focused on poking holes in the individual accusers’ stories and casting doubt on their credibility. Some questions veered toward classic victim-blaming, including asking one witness how she was dressed and whether she danced provocatively for Kelly.
But most questions simply tried to shade the accusers as untruthful, motivated by money or spite.
When “Faith” took the stand earlier this month, she said Kelly subjected her to degrading sex acts and strict rules. At least once, she had to wait hours for his permission to use the bathroom, she said. In addition, she testified, Kelly gave her herpes after having unprotected sex without disclosing that he had the infection. And after she filed a lawsuit against him, her lawyer received threatening letters, indicating that nude pictures of Faith would leak if she did not drop the case.
Afterward, the photos circulated on Facebook anyway, she testified.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Deveraux Cannick noted that Faith continued to fly around the country to see Kelly, even after having the kind of sex she said was degrading and unwanted.
“So, after all that, after being forced to perform oral sex on him, after being intimidated by him because he had a gun next to him as he spoke to you, and leaving you behind, you went to visit him again?” he asked. “Correct,” she said. “Your choice, right?” he responded.
When prosecutors rose to respond, they put the focus instead on Kelly’s choices.
“The defendant chose to ignore you when you said you weren’t comfortable with sex, correct?” prosecutor Nadia Shihata asked. “In Los Angeles, the defendant chose to grab the back of your head, put his penis in your mouth, keep his hand pushing towards (his) penis with a gun next to him, correct?”
Correct, Faith said. On occasion, the defense tried to ask about witnesses’ sexual histories, a line of inquiry that is strictly out of bounds for alleged victims of sexual abuse, unless the defense asks permission well ahead of time and a judge grants it.
When Cannick asked one witness, “Anna,” if she had “hooked up” with a football player while visiting home during her time with Kelly, Judge Ann M. Donnelly spoke to the lawyers in a sidebar.
“I know my lips are moving when we’re having this conversation, but sometimes I feel like the sound isn’t coming out,” she told the attorneys, according to a transcript of the sidebar. “Because I know the issue is, as we’ve discussed on prior occasions, is that you have to make an application to ask those kinds of questions.”
Cannick said he didn’t mean “hook up” in a sexual way, he only meant to show that Anna was dating other men.
On occasion, the defense asked witnesses about their parents, apparently in hopes that jurors would view them as conspiring with their daughters to squeeze money out of Kelly.
The effect may have backfired with one witness, “Jane,” showing her as a victim twice over: first of her parents, then of Kelly. She testified that her parents used to beat her to get her to practice her music, and that after she first encountered Kelly her mother would text him, pretending to be her. Her parents also tried to approach Kelly about various business ventures, she said, which the defense brought out in hopes that they would view Jane as part of an attempted extortion.
In a testy sidebar after prosecutors objected to Cannick’s line of questioning, Donnelly warned Cannick that he might not have the effect he was hoping.
“I ruled pretrial that even if the parents had pushed her into a relationship with him, that that is, obviously, not a defense,” she said. “… I take it your argument is that they are, basically, stage parents that don’t really care about their child’s welfare and have turned sort of a blind eye to what’s happened to her, but I don’t know how helpful that is to your case.”
The defense has largely conceded that Kelly had many girlfriends, that they would sometimes need his permission to move around, and that they were sexually active. But the defense has tried to show it all as innocuous, or even wholesome. Their movements might have been restricted for their own good, when security was sparse, they have indicated. And the whole group functioned like a family, celebrating holidays together and throwing lavish parties and exchanging gifts.
But both things can be true at once, some witnesses said. Kelly was caring and kind — up until he wasn’t.
“I got to see a compassionate side of him, emotional side. He wasn’t always bad. He wasn’t always mean,” Faith testified. “… I also saw him — there were times where he would flip, just extremely calm then go to like being super sexually hyper, just different phases, just depending on how he was feeling, in the moods he was in.”
And on Wednesday, prosecutors played tapes that they said provided definitive proof that Kelly was abusive and violent. Jurors listened to recordings that court papers have characterized as violent and extremely profane, in which Kelly threatens a woman who he believes stole from him. People get “murdered” for doing things like that, he allegedly said.
The prosecution’s final two witnesses took the stand on Friday. The first, Cheryl Mack, a former assistant to Kelly, testified she saw one of Kelly’s alleged victims begin to massage Kelly while backstage at a Connecticut concert where he was performing, according to Reuters.
“I was very uncomfortable,” she testified, saying as she left the room she caught a glimpse of the woman moving her head toward Kelly’s groin, Reuters reported Friday.
Mack also said Kelly lost his temper in 2015 after she supposedly ruined a surprise birthday party for former stylist Kash Howard, the wire service reported, and had her sign an “apology letter” that included false claims she accepted kickbacks from booking agents.
“I apologized out of fear,” Mack said, according to the Reuters report.
Defense lawyers on Monday are expected to cross-examine the government’s final witness, Dawn Hughes, a clinical psychologist who has outlined how people might groom underage girls for sex, and how victims cope with the trauma.
Closing arguments are expected as soon as next week.