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By Chris Cooke | Published on Thursday 18 August 2022
The latest R Kelly trial kicked off in Chicago yesterday, with the star this time battling charges relating to images of child abuse and conspiracy to obstruct justice. And while there will be plenty of parallels between these proceedings and the trial that took place in New York a year ago, yesterday’s opening statements confirmed that there will be even stronger links to a much earlier trial involving the musician.
Last year Kelly was found guilty in New York State of setting up and running a criminal enterprise in order to access and abuse women and teenagers, a conviction that resulted in a 30 year jail sentence. But when the musician was first charged with sexually abusing a minor back in the 2000s, he was acquitted. This trial will review the incident at the heart of that 2000s trial, and the alleged efforts by Kelly and his team to hide evidence and silence witnesses as that case was being investigated and heard.
The 2000s case – which ultimately ended up in court in Chicago in 2008 – was sparked by the leaking of a video that Kelly had seemingly recorded in the late 1990s in which he could allegedly be seen sexually abusing a teenage girl.
The prosecution’s case first time around was greatly hindered by the victim – believed to be fourteen years old when the video was made – declining to testify, with the defence seeking to throw doubt on whether it was, in fact, Kelly and the victim who appeared in the video.
However, this time around the victim – referred to simply as Jane – is expected to testify. According to CNN, Assistant US Attorney Jason Julien told the court during his opening statement yesterday: “Jane’s going to testify. Jane’s going to tell you that it’s her on the videos. That it’s Kelly on the videos having sex with her”.
The prosecution will also go to some lengths to explain why Jane and her family declined to work with prosecutors back in the 2000s, while also setting out evidence that Kelly and two of his former allies – who are co-defendants in this trial – staged a big cover up during that earlier criminal investigation.
Kelly first met Jane in the mid-1990s when she was twelve or thirteen years old, the prosecution explained at yesterday’s hearing. He had connections with her family members, having signed her aunt to a record deal and hired her father to play guitar on several of his records. He eventually became Jane’s godfather.
But “Kelly never became Jane’s godfather in a religious sense”, Julien told the court, instead “being Jane’s ‘godfather’ provided cover for spending time with her”. And that allowed him to sexually abuse the girl, the abuse beginning when she was thirteen or fourteen, and he was around 31. “Kelly taught Jane what to do to please Kelly sexually”, Julien continued. “Kelly told Jane how to position her body during sex… what he wanted Jane to say to him during sex”.
When it emerged that videos of the abuse had leaked, it’s claimed, Kelly’s team instigated a campaign to silence the victim’s family and recover any tapes that had not yet got into the hands of the media or the police. When the authorities began investigating one of the tapes in the early 2000s, Julien added, Kelly sent Jane and her family on a month-long trip out of the country and – when they got back – they lied to the authorities about the tape at Kelly’s behest.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Julien explained that – by that time – Jane’s family had become financially dependent on Kelly – not least because of the work he was providing to her father – and that dependency only increased in the following years.
Meanwhile, Kelly got his co-defendants – Derrel McDavid and Milton ‘June’ Brown – to find and buy back any other incriminating tapes that had leaked.
Noting that – while Jane’s testimony is likely to be key, she is by no means Kelly’s only victim – Julien also stated: “The defendant Robert Kelly had sex with multiple children. He made videotapes of himself having sex with young children. And these two defendants Derrel McDavid and Milton Brown knew about it. Derrel McDavid and Milton Brown helped Kelly cover it up and keep it a secret”.
For their part, both McDavid and Brown claim they were relatively small cogs in the big machine that was built around the R Kelly brand, especially in Brown’s case, simply undertaking tasks at the request of lawyers and other advisors working for the star.
Both also insist that, at the time, Kelly was saying the tapes were illegitimate and had been doctored. Therefore, the two men’s respective defence lawyers said in their opening remarks yesterday, they didn’t knowingly obstruct justice by acquiring the videos for their boss, because at the time they believed he was being unfairly blackmailed.
As for Kelly’s defence, he has different representation than at last year’s trial in New York. His new lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, urged jurors to ignore attempts by government prosecutors to present her client as “monster”.
“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”.
Elsewhere in her opening statement, Bonjean said that the prosecution would make various claims regarding the creation, leaking and return of those crucial video tapes in the 2000s, but that those claims “hinge on the testimony of liars, extortionists [and] people who engaged in the business of trafficking pornography”.
As for Jane’s testimony, Bonjean said: “For the last 22 years she has adamantly denied that it was her in that video. Before there was any criminal investigation, she denied it. She denied it repeatedly to prosecutors, she denied it to social workers to police officers. She denied it under oath to a grand jury”.
So why is she now prepared to testify the opposite? Obviously the prosecution expected that line of argument and – in addition to setting out, in their opening statement, the power Kelly had over her family in the 2000s – their first witness was on hand to explain how victims of child abuse often delay reporting that abuse for years.
That witness was psychologist Darrel Turner, who has worked with child sex abuse victims and offenders. According to the Chicago Tribune, “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”.
Meanwhile, “false allegations are extremely rare and usually come up in the context of divorce or custody proceedings”.
With opening statements delivered and the first witnesses called, the second R Kelly trial in a year is now fully underway. It’s expected that the proceedings will run for about four weeks.