It's really happening: R. Kelly, R&B's self-professed Pied Piper, is having his day(s) in court, facing charges that he videotaped himself having sex with an underage female. Now that it's on, the trial itself has already proven to be as much of a cliffhanger as the six years that lead up to it.
The back story: In June 2002, the singer born Robert Sylvester Kelly was arrested at a rented Florida home and charged with 21 counts of child pornography. Seven of the charges were eventually dropped. Kelly swiftly denied ever having sex with a minor. The case dragged on: one time, because presiding judge Vincent M. Gaughan broke several bones while climbing a ladder; another time, because Kelly needed an appendectomy. Last December, the singer failed to make a scheduled court appearance after Utah authorities stopped his speeding tour bus. All the while, Kelly made millions with various projects including 2005's acclaimed hip-hopera, Trapped in the Closet. There was much skepticism about whether Kelly, 41, would ever face trial. Even on Tuesday morning, amid opening arguments, there was nearly a mistrial after one of the case's lead detectives used the word "investigation" on the witness stand violating a court order barring the term.
The most anticipated or, depending on one's view, feared aspect of the trial so far was the showing of the prosecution's most important piece of evidence: the videotape. Kelly's defense attorneys filed at least one motion as late as Tuesday morning to prevent the tape from being shown. That motion, however, was unsuccessful. Then, the judge issued an odd warning via his pro bono spokesman: sketch artists might open themselves to child pornography charges and a revocation of their press credentials for drawing depictions of the tape. (On Wednesday, Gaughan revoked the press credentials of an artist who depicted jurors in a sketch published in Tuesday's Chicago Tribune.)
As planned, attorneys closed the blinds on the courtroom's large windows. Lights in the courtroom were dimmed. "All right, you ready?" Gaughan asked.
Jurors watched the video from a vast screen in the middle of the room. Reporters and spectators watched on a separate television. And, it appeared, Kelly watched from a flat-screen monitor connected to his defense attorney's table. In the video's opening scene, a man in red pants, a baggy white t-shirt and a diamond stud in his left ear similar to Kelly's sits in a wood-paneled room that resembles a space that detectives photographed in the home Kelly once owned in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Then, the man sticks his penis into the female's mouth and offers dialogue that seems taken straight from a porn movie. Jurors who'd taken meticulous notes throughout the day suddenly stopped. One twentysomething white juror put a hand across one of his ears. One middle-aged black woman lowered her head, obviously disgusted. Kelly, meanwhile, leaned back in his chair, at some points hardly able to watch. In the seventh row, a group of not-so-prim young women sat with their hands stuffed into puffy jackets. One of the women sucked her teeth as the female in the video screamed, "Daddy, do me."
Despite the presence of the 27-minute video, this is hardly a slam-dunk case. For starters, prosecutors face the bizarre burden of establishing that the female in the video was, in fact, a minor. The alleged victim, now 23, has so far denied she is the female in the video. Court documents suggest she could testify on behalf of the defense. Meanwhile, prosecutors are expected to call to the stand several of her relatives, neighbors and friends to establish that she was, in fact, in the video and was a minor at the time. Prosecutors are also expected to call to the stand a woman who claims to have engaged in threesomes with Kelly and the female from the video. So far, Kelly's attorneys have presented a powerful argument by questioning the veracity of the tape which was dubbed widely and sold in DVD form on street corners in major cities across the country. Defense attorneys have also challenged the competence of the case's detectives questioning, for instance, why they didn't bother to interview Kelly immediately after the tape surfaced. In his opening arguments, defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., said of the tape: [This] "evidence is, at best, a copy of a copy of a copy that went through an editing process. But, who did the editing? We don't know." Can prosecutors prove that Kelly is the man who made the tape, Adam asked. "I'm telling you, they can't," he said. Among other key questions: Why are prosecutors planning to call to testify a North Carolina doctor who apparently has never interviewed the alleged victim? And, just how did the tape wind up at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002? If found guilty, Kelly could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
A defendant's attire shouldn't matter, but of course it does especially when it's a black defendant standing before a largely white jury, as Kelly is. That's perhaps why the rapper Lil' Kim traded her revealing bodices for more respectable gear by designers such as Marc Jacobs during her 2005 perjury trial. Kelly perhaps didn't get the memo: On the first day of his jury's selection, he wore a loud purple suit. On Tuesday, he struck a comparatively muted tone, sporting a blue pinstriped suit, with a preppy blue-and-orange striped tie. On Wednesday, he wore a light-brown pinstriped suit, a white shirt and a yellow tie with dots of an undeterminable color. The only constant so far has been Kelly's cornrows, which always seem to be freshly tightened. Haj Gueye, a Chicago fashion consultant whose clients include the comedian Bernie Mac, Chicago Cubs player Derrek Lee and several top executives, says he would have advised Kelly to wear a more closely cropped haircut, and more muted colors, like blue or black. That posture, the Senegalese-born, Paris-bred Gueye says, "would show the public that he's grown up. Professional people the ones who are judging whether to put R. Kelly away are judging him before he even opens his mouth. The braids," Gueye adds, "just promote a certain image that very few people on that jury will likely be able to relate to."
It's certainly possible that Kelly's posture will only bolster his street cred. During a break in the case on Tuesday afternoon, a cluster of young women screamed when Kelly was led by his beefy bodyguards out of the courtroom. "Everybody deserves their day in court, and I'm going to be here until they leave the Kells alone," Sierra Horne, 19, said as she was pushed into a descending elevator by a sheriff's deputy after screaming too loudly at Kelly. So deep is Horne's loyalty, she claims to have skipped two days of school just to attend the trial. About 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Kelly strutted outside the courthouse on Chicago's South Side. "We love you, R-Uh," Horne's crew screamed, as if on cue. A car filled with seemingly teenaged girls stopped in the middle of South California Avenue to watch Kelly leap into a black SUV's back seat. Neither Kelly nor his entourage bothered to acknowledge them. Despite the love the girls showed The R., it isn't hard to understand why, under the glare of this scrutiny, Kelly acted as if they were invisible.