R. Kelly convicted on child pornography charges at federal trial in Chicago

It took more than two decades for “Jane” to come forward about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her godfather, R&B superstar R. Kelly.

And in the end, a federal jury in Chicago believed her.

They believed her testimony that she was the one on the graphic videos directed by the Grammy-winning singer, a man twice her age. They believed their ears when they heard Jane’s high-pitched, heartbreakingly young voice refer to her “14-year-old” genitalia.

And they believed their own eyes in finally determining, in a court of law, that Kelly was guilty.

In a split verdict after a hotly contested trial, a federal jury convicted Kelly on child pornography charges for making three videotapes of himself sexually abusing Jane beginning in the late 1990s. The charges Kelly was convicted of carry a minimum of 10 years in prison.

The conviction on those counts comes 14 years after Kelly’s infamous acquittal on similar charges in Cook County, which were based on a single video of Kelly allegedly abusing Jane in the hot tub room of his former home on West George Street. Jane had refused to cooperate in that case.

Kelly was also found guilty Wednesday on three out of five counts related to enticement of a minor involving Jane, as she was known in the trial, and two other victims who came forward to testify against him.

But in a rare loss for federal prosecutors, the jury acquitted Kelly and two co-defendants on sensational charges they conspired to retrieve incriminating tapes and rig his 2008 trial by pressuring Jane to lie to investigators about their relationship and refuse to testify against him.

The jury of seven women and five men also acquitted Kelly and his two former associates, Derrel McDavid and Milton “June” Brown, of conspiring to receive the footage that was shown in court. Jurors apparently determined that while the videos they saw were authentic, they could not say beyond a reasonable doubt that Kelly’s team schemed to get them back or even knowingly obtained them.

Kelly was also found not guilty of filming himself with Jane on a video that jurors never saw. Prosecutors said “Video 4″ was not played because Kelly’s team successfully buried it, but defense attorneys questioned whether it existed at all.

The long-awaited verdict came after five weeks of trial featuring some 34 witnesses. The jury deliberated for about 11 hours over two days before the decision was announced in the large ceremonial courtroom at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.

Dressed in a blue suit and tie and black glasses, Kelly, 55, stared straight ahead and had no noticeable reaction to the jury’s decision. His attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, pumped a fist and rubbed Kelly’s back as some of the “not guilty” verdicts were read.

Kelly and McDavid, 61, were acquitted on charges they conspired to obstruct justice in Kelly’s 2002 Cook County case. The two men also were acquitted on charges they received child pornography.

All three defendants including Brown, 56, were acquitted on charges of conspiring to receive child pornography.

As he was found not guilty on the last of the counts against him, McDavid shot up from his seat in the middle of the courtroom and thrust both fists toward the ceiling. Later, he bear-hugged Kelly from across the defense table and appeared to whisper something in his ear.

After court, McDavid’s attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber if their client could get his ankle monitor removed, given his complete exoneration. The judge said he wasn’t even sure of the procedure.

“This doesn’t happen often,” Leinenweber said. “But it should be done immediately.”

As attorneys packed up their things, McDavid said, “I’m buying the drinks tonight!”

Kelly, who has been in custody since his July 2019 arrest in Chicago, was led away to the lockup by deputy U.S. marshals. A sentencing date was not immediately set.

U.S. Attorney John Lausch told reporters Wednesday that Kelly could face anywhere from 10 to 90 years behind bars, and that prosecutors will request that his sentence be served consecutive to the 30 years he’s already received for racketeering conspiracy in a New York federal case.

“When we have instances where defendants are convicted of committing horrific acts against other individuals, and it’s separate and apart from other horrific acts that he committed against other individuals, we’re asking for that (sentence) to be consecutive,” Lausch said.

In the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after court, Bonjean told reporters she was glad to see the jury was able to make decisions on each count individually.

“They did their job. They looked at each count separately, and they obviously concluded, as I concluded long ago, this case was overcharged,” she said.

Bonjean said Kelly “is used to bad news,” but knows he’s got “more fights to fight,” including an appeal of his New York conviction and sentence and possibly an appeal in Chicago as well.

“What he did say is that he had a sense of relief that this particular case was not in the future, it was in the past now,” Bonjean said.

Bonjean also said she believed McDavid and Brown were charged only to try to get them to cooperate with investigators.

“Absolutely. That’s how the government rolls,” Bonjean said. “They don’t even believe in their own evidence, so they need to put pressure on other people to try to get them to flip. That’s exactly what happened. And I’m glad they got it. You know, but that didn’t work out for them.”

Bonjean also said prosecutors got “greedy” by proceeding with charges Kelly abused one victim, Brittany, even though she didn’t come in to testify.

Lausch disputed that, however, telling reporters it was “absolutely a righteous charge to bring” given the abuse Brittany allegedly suffered, and that his office would “bring it again tomorrow.” Lausch declined to say why Brittany didn’t testify.

Moments before Lausch spoke, McDavid stood beaming next to his lawyers, Beau Brindley, Vadim Glozman and Michael Thompson. Brindley said the verdict showed that the case against his client never should have been brought in the first place.

“We are grateful for these jurors to be able to see that when a lie is told on the witness stand, it will not be acceptable,” Brindley said. “Witnesses chose to lie, implicate this man and drag him through this experience from 2019 until today. Now, it’s over.”

Brown left the courthouse without comment.

The verdict marked a dramatic conclusion to a case that broke on July 11, 2019, when Kelly was arrested while walking his dog on the federal indictments brought simultaneously in Chicago and New York. The case endured many delays as it wound its way toward trial, including the COVID-19 pandemic that pushed the trial date back several times.

During the five-week trial, the jury was shown clips from three separate videos allegedly depicting Kelly abusing Jane, including the same tape from his Cook County trial as well as another where he instructed her to refer repeatedly to her “14-year-old” genitalia.

Last month, Jane testified for the first time that not only was it her on the videotapes, but that Kelly had sexually abused her “innumerable” times when she was a minor, at his recording studio, his home, on tour buses and in hotel rooms.

Asked on the witness stand why, after two decades of silence, she finally decided to come forward and speak out, Jane said: “I became exhausted with living with (Kelly’s) lies.”

In her closing argument Tuesday, Bonjean talked at length about Kelly’s relationship with Jane and her family, which continued far beyond her alleged abuse as a minor and, according to Bonjean, was approved by her parents.

“It is an inconvenient reality for the government,” Bonjean said. “Lives are complex, and for all the fist pounding and the outrage, that family made a decision that they had to live with at that time.”

Jane’s parents lied to the grand jury about her sexual relationship with the singer because “they didn’t care,” Bonjean said. “She was 17 and they didn’t care … They condoned it.”

Bonjean noted that when the 2019 Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” was coming out, Jane repeatedly reached out to Kelly but he never tried to influence her in any way. “He changed his phone number,” she said. “He goes silent on her. This is the most disinterested person in obstructing that I have ever seen.”

In rebuttal, however, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannice Appenteng said the evidence was clear that Kelly was a serial sexual predator and that his co-defendants made the decision to help him hide it to keep his career intact and keep lining their own pockets.

“What R. Kelly wanted was to have sex with young girls,” Appenteng said. “And what the people around him wanted … they wanted to help their boss, including helping him get away with it.”

Appenteng also urged the jury to pay special attention to Jane’s testimony and the videotapes of her abuse.

“You saw how (Kelly) was using her body, flipping her over, throwing her around like she was some rag doll,” Appenteng says. “That’s what this case is about.”

In addition to Jane, three other women told the jury that he sexually abused them when they were minors and he was a rising superstar. Kelly was convicted on charges related to three of them: Jane, “Nia” and “Pauline.”

All of the women faced hours of often-combative cross-examination from Bonjean, who hit hard on both their motives, the length of time it took them to come forward, and even whether they were truly underage when they began sexual relationships with the singer.

“Pauline” testified she was Jane’s best friend when they were teenagers and often hung out with her at Kelly’s home and Near West Side recording studio, Chicago Trax.

Now 37, Pauline said that when she and Jane were both about 14 years old she went looking for Jane at Kelly’s home and found her naked, kneeling in front of Kelly.

“He told me he was just looking for bruises on her, because she hurt herself,” she said. “I told him that ‘that’s not how you look for bruises’ and he said that’s how he looked for bruises … then he stated that ‘we all have secrets.’”

Kelly directed her to have sexual contact with him and Jane, and the three began to have sexual interactions regularly, she said. It was dozens or maybe hundreds of times when Pauline was ages 14 to 16, she testified. The legal age of consent in Illinois is 17.

“Tracy” told jurors she met Kelly in 1999, when she was a 16-year-old intern at a record label and he was 32. Not long afterward, Kelly gave her his phone number at an expo and told her to call him. When she did, he invited her to his studio, where he got her into an office area alone, she said.

He said he liked her, and she told him she was 16, she testified. “He’s like, ‘OK,’” she said. “He told me he was 23.” They kissed, and when she declined to give him oral sex, he performed a sex act on her, she said. “I tried to pull back, but he had a hold on my shirt and he was pleasuring himself,” she testified.

About a week later, Kelly sexually assaulted her in a hotel room, she testified, describing their encounter in explicit detail. “I told him I didn’t want to have sex, but he had forced himself in me,” she said. “When I asked him (to stop) he did stop.”

Tracy said their relationship turned to intercourse that summer, and that over the next year or so, they had sex about 50 times including some encounters involving other girls — including Jane. She said the relationship ended in 2001 when she was 18.

A fourth alleged victim, Nia, testified Kelly flew her to Minneapolis for one of his concerts after she met him in the spring of 1996 at an autograph signing at an Atlanta shopping mall, when she was 15.

Later that summer, Nia came to Chicago to stay with cousins and visited Kelly at his studio, she said. Over the course of the night he summoned her away twice so they could kiss alone in the hallway. During one of those instances he groped her under her pants, she testified.

In 2002, Nia filed a lawsuit against Kelly with the allegations of underage sexual contact, and Kelly agreed to pay $500,000 to settle the claim, she testified.

The fifth alleged victim Kelly was charged with abusing — Brittany — was the only one who did not take the witness stand, even though prosecutors had promised the jury in opening statements that they would hear from her.

Instead, jurors heard testimony from Jane and Pauline that Brittany was a friend of theirs and that Kelly had included her in various sexual encounters at his studio and Lakeview home, some of which were filmed.

“Brittany! Who is Brittany? Where is Brittany?” Bonjean shouted during her closing argument. “We don’t know anything about her. … That’s greed. That’s greediness on (prosecutors’) part, and it is not proper.”

Kelly was also acquitted of a count alleging he videotaped himself having sexual contact with Jane and prosecution witness Lisa Van Allen. While Van Allen and Jane testified that the threesome occurred and was videotaped, jurors did not view footage from that encounter.

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Prosecutors’ case hinged in part on the word of Van Allen and another prosecution witness Charles Freeman, whom defense attorneys repeatedly characterized as liars and extortionists.

Freeman told jurors a wildly memorable tale about how R. Kelly and his associates agreed to pay him up to a million dollars to hunt down videos.

The plot as described by Freeman spanned almost a decade, and unfolded in cities from Chicago to Kansas City and Atlanta, at Kelly’s music studio, concert venues and even the singer’s sprawling Olympia Fields mansion, where Freeman said he was told to strip naked and get in a pool to prove he wasn’t wearing a wire.

Defense attorneys noted that Freeman had told different versions of his story to different authorities over the years. In closing arguments, Brindley said Freeman’s testimony about busting into a Georgia home “like Shaft” to recover a sex tape was “just plain stupid.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

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