Jury selection in R. Kelly’s federal trial begins with judge dismissing many who said they would have trouble being impartial

·6 min read
Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Jury selection in R. Kelly’s federal trial in Chicago got underway Monday with the judge questioning more than 60 potential jurors about what they know about the indicted R&B star and the charges against him.

By the end of the day, a total of 34 jurors had made it past the first round of questioning — about six shy of where the judge said he wanted to be before moving on to the next phase.

Shortly before court began, Kelly, dressed in a gray suit and tan shirt, was brought into the large ceremonial courtroom at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse and took his seat at a crowded defense table, leaning over at times to whisper through a face covering to his attorneys.

Potential jurors’ identities are being shielded from the public during the proceedings, and very little was revealed about them as U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber asked each person to clarify answers they gave on a written questionnaire.

Of the 63 people questioned individually by the judge over nearly six hours, a total of 29 were dismissed, most of whom reported they would have trouble being impartial to Kelly or his co-defendants.

Some judges, faced with a prospective juror who is iffy about their neutrality, will try to “rehabilitate” them — reminding them of their civic duty to be fair, and asking pointedly if they can fulfill that obligation. But Leinenweber on Monday dismissed everyone who expressed even the tiniest doubts about their impartiality.

“Thinking about the case and the charges over the weekend, I no longer firmly believe that I can be unbiased,” one woman said at the outset of the questioning. Leinenweber promptly excused her.

Another woman said she went to Tae Kwon Do classes with Kelly’s children years ago, and the experience might keep her from being unbiased.

Another woman said her job involves advocating for children.

“I would do my best to be fair, be impartial. My only concern would be the defensiveness side kicking in, perhaps,” she said before Leinenweber excused her.

Much of the questioning revolved around the “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries, which many potential jurors said they had watched or had at least heard of.

One woman said she saw the whole thing, but it would not affect her ability to be fair — prompting some audible snickers from a few Kelly supporters watching from the courtroom gallery.

Another prospective juror said he watched part of an episode with his wife but didn’t remember anything substantive about it.

“I think I might have even fallen asleep before the end of it,” he said.

Leinenweber has said he wanted a pool of at least 40 before moving to the next phase, when both prosecutors and defense attorneys will use their peremptory strikes to further weed out the panel.

Opening statements in the case could begin as soon as Tuesday.

Before jury selection began around 10:45 a.m., Leinenweber sped through a slew of pretrial decisions, ruling in favor of prosecutors on several high-profile requests.

The judge denied Kelly co-defendant Derrel McDavid’s request for more records about a former Kelly prosecutor’s communications with a key witness and Jim DeRogatis. He also rejected McDavid’s arguments that prosecutors botched the chain of custody on a key video, saying a witness is expected to vouch for its authenticity under oath.

He also granted prosecutors’ motion to exclude testimony from a doctor about Kelly’s low IQ; Kelly’s attorneys then said for the record they had decided against calling the doctor at trial anyway.

Leinenweber also denied a defense request to reject any jurors who had seen any part of Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries. Kelly’s attorneys had argued that anyone who had seen any part of the series could not be fair.

Leinenweber, however, said a blanket rejection of anyone who had seen any part of the show would not be appropriate.

Apparently Leinenweber had decided on many of the requests at a hearing last week that never hit the public docket. Leinenweber’s rulings also were not made part of the public record until he read them from the bench Monday morning.

In a motion filed Sunday, Kelly’s attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, wrote that the potential pitfalls over the series, which details years of sexual misconduct allegations against the Chicago-born R&B singer, go far beyond the usual concerns over jurors being exposed to negative pretrial publicity.

“This is an issue of potential jurors possessing a mountain of information about the specific allegations in this case and the witnesses’ stories that will play center stage at this trial and may or may not be admissible,” Bonjean wrote. “Allowing an individual to sit on this jury who has seen ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ is no different than allowing a juror to sit on the jury who was permitted to preview the discovery in this case.”

A pool of about 100 potential jurors came to the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse last week to fill out questionnaires, including their thoughts about the high-profile defendant, who was sentenced in June to 30 years in prison on federal racketeering charges brought in New York.

Kelly, 55, was charged with child pornography and obstruction of justice in a 2019 indictment alleging he conspired with others to rig his Cook County trial years ago by paying off a teenage girl whom he sexually assaulted on a now-infamous videotape.

Also facing trial are Kelly’s former business manager, 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.

Though Kelly is already facing what could be the rest of his life behind bars, the trial about to unfold in Chicago seems ripe for intrigue.

For one, Kelly’s attorney, Bonjean, is a veteran litigator who relishes taking on what she portrays as an unchecked and overzealous government, representing controversial clients such as actor Bill Cosby and Gangster Disciples boss Larry Hoover. Brown’s lawyer, Mary Judge, is also well-respected and a 25-year veteran of the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Chicago.

McDavid, meanwhile, is represented by Chicago attorneys Beau Brindley and Vadim Glozman, who have shown in a flurry of pretrial motions that they intend to aggressively fight the charges, even if it means potentially throwing Kelly under the bus.

And in an added twist, Brindley himself was acquitted by Leinenweber seven years ago of criminal charges alleging he’d coached clients to lie on the witness stand — a case that the Chicago Tribune first reported when the FBI raided Brindley’s office in the famed Monadnock Building across the street from Chicago’s federal courthouse.

The attorney who defended Brindley in that case, the late Edward Genson, was Kelly’s lead attorney in his 2008 child pornography trial.

Leinenweber, 85, is one of the senior statesmen of Chicago’s federal bench, with a reputation for fairness, an acute knowledge of the law and a fairly low tolerance for nonsense.

However the evidence shakes out, Kelly’s trial is the most high-profile event at the typically buttoned-down Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the 2 1/2 years since the onset of the pandemic.

Kelly’s die-hard followers — some who live-tweet events in his case and post social media videos that garner millions of views — are expected to show up in droves to support him, just like they did at his first Cook County trial and his Brooklyn trial.

DeRogotis has been subpoenaed as a potential witness for the defense.

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