Defense focuses on more recent contact between R. Kelly and woman who testified earlier that she was teen on sex video

·7 min read
Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — R. Kelly’s attorney on Friday began to cross-examine the key witness in his Chicago federal trial, a woman who now says she was the young teenager seen on an infamous sex tape that led to Kelly’s indictment on child pornography charges two decades ago.

The woman, who was referred to in court by the pseudonym “Jane,” spent about four hours testifying on direct examination Thursday that Kelly struck up a clandestine sexual relationship with her when she was an impressionable young teenager in the 1990s.

Kelly’s lead attorney Jennifer Bonjean, however, focused her initial cross-examination on Jane’s adulthood. She showed Jane a long series of text messages between Jane and Kelly dating from 2018 and 2019, establishing that the two had relatively recent contact.

The texts were friendly, with Jane inviting Kelly to a birthday celebration and the two exchanging Happy New Year greetings. After Lifetime’s explosive “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries premiered in January 2019, Jane sent him messages of support.

“I love you, don’t let the devil win,” she texted him. Kelly responded with “yeah, I was on a major breakdown but now I’m on a major buildup.”

“He wasn’t trying to influence you to do anything, you were just commiserating,” Bonjean said, and Jane confirmed.

And in February 2019, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office contacted Jane — they were in possession of more video allegedly involving her and Kelly. Jane texted Kelly: “you need to call me right away or I’m making decisions on my own.”

Bonjean interpreted that as an extortion attempt. In response, Jane slowly screwed on the cap of her water bottle, paused, and spoke deliberately into the microphone.

“The decision I was going to make was to cooperate with the authorities because I no longer wanted to carry his lies,” she said.

Jane has remained composed under questioning from Bonjean, maintaining eye contact as each question is asked and often giving succinct one-word answers.

In Jane’s initial interviews with federal prosecutors in 2019 she refused to discuss a relationship with Kelly and refused to watch any videos, she testified. Bonjean repeatedly asked whether that her own decision, and she acknowledged it was.

Bonjean also hinted aggressively that Jane only changed her mind about cooperating with federal authorities in 2019 after learning that she could seek restitution, a line of questioning to which prosecutors objected and called for a sidebar before the timeline could fully be worked out.

Jane, for her part, said she had not yet made up her mind about whether she would seek restitution if Kelly is convicted.

After about an hour, Bonjean’s questioning turned to Jane’s teen years; she testified Thursday that she had sexual contact with Kelly beginning when she was just 14, and from ages 15 to 18 had intercourse with Kelly “innumerable” times.

Bonjean was audibly skeptical that Jane’s parents would not have known and that, as Jane testified, Kelly would have trusted other underage girls to keep their threesomes with him and Jane a secret.

“You’re still adamant that your parents at that point were blissfully unaware of this relationship, right?” Bonjean asked, after noting how much time Jane must have been spending away from them.

“Yes, because they thought I was around (Kelly’s) family,” Jane responded. “They didn’t know I was spending time with him separately.”

Two women are expected to testify later at trial that they had sexual contact with Kelly and Jane while they were underage; Bonjean said in opening statements this week that they are lying and only had sex with Kelly after they could legally consent.

After Jane’s testimony has concluded, prosecutors are expected to show jurors the graphic videos that Jane identified as showing Kelly sexually abusing her when she was 14.

Bonjean’s cross-examination hit a technical snag when she was trying to show Jane her text messages with Kelly without revealing certain identifying information such as her phone number.

After making what they thought were all the necessary redactions, Kelly’s defense team put the texts on the screen, but apparently had forgotten to black out one portion that contained Jane’s first and last name.

After it had been up on the screen for a few seconds, a loud whisper went up at the defense table and the exhibit was quickly taken down.

In taking the stand, Jane, now 37, told her story publicly for the first time since refusing to cooperate years ago with investigators. Her absence left a glaring gap in Kelly’s 2008 trial in Cook County, which ended in acquittal after jurors said they simply could not agree about whether the girl on the pornographic tape was actually her.

Dressed in a white blazer with her hair in long braids, Jane took the jury through a harrowing tale of alleged grooming, sexual abuse and cover-up that she said began when she first had sexual contact with Kelly at just 14.

After that, they had sex “innumerable times,” sometimes along with other teenage girls whom Jane recruited at Kelly’s request, she said. The encounters took place in Kelly’s home on West George Street, at his Near West Side recording studio, on tour buses and in hotels in Chicago and elsewhere, she said.

Kelly’s lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, has told the jury that the prosecutors’ case hinges on the testimony of liars, extortionists (and) people who engaged in the business of trafficking pornography.”

And, in a reference to the #MeToo era in which the federal indictment was filed, Bonjean said they whole case was the result of a “mob-justice climate” where “hashtag movements” guide prosecutors’ decisions.

During Jane’s testimony Thursday, Bonjean frequently objected to the form of questions being posed by prosecutors, claiming they were leading, lacked foundation for where or when certain events occurred, or misstated her previous testimony.

In her cross-examination Friday, Bonjean is expected to try to challenge Jane’s recollection of events and her motivations for changing her story after so many years.

Jane acknowledged on direct examination Thursday that she not only lied to a Cook County grand jury in 2002 by saying it wasn’t her on the videotape, but she also has been granted immunity by federal prosecutors for that perjury.

She remained composed for much of her time on the stand, testifying in a soft but matter-of-fact tone about how she came into Kelly’s orbit and how their mutual love of music and basketball sparked a friendship despite the age gap.

But Jane’s voice grew quieter and began to break as she was asked to describe sexual encounters that Kelly recorded, including the now-infamous tape at the center of Kelly’s 2008 trial.

One of the videos, which are expected to be played later for jurors, showed Jane and Kelly having oral sex in the living room of his Lakeview home, she said. He could be seen giving her Champagne and telling her to refer to her genitalia as 14 years old, she said. Then he urinated on her, she said in a voice almost too soft to hear, dabbing tears from her eyes.

On another video from about the same time, Jane testified, filmed in a wood-paneled Jacuzzi room, Kelly appeared to hand her money before they have sex.

When a prosecutor asked why he gave her money, Jane started to cry audibly, saying after a long pause: “Because if anybody saw the tape or if it was released for some reason, he wanted it to appear as if I was a prostitute.”

As she said it, Jane looked sadly down at the table in front of her. Seated at the defense table across the courtroom, Kelly shook his head.

Kelly, 55, is charged with 13 counts of production of child pornography, conspiracy to produce child pornography and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Some of the counts carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years behind bars if convicted, while others have ranges of five to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors are also seeking a personal money forfeiture of $1.5 million from Kelly.

Also on 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.

Regardless of the outcome, Kelly is still facing decades in prison. In June, he was sentenced to 30 years on federal racketeering charges brought in New York. He is appealing both the jury’s verdict and the sentence in that case.