CHICAGO — Attorneys for R. Kelly’s former business manager and assistant, who are accused of helping him conceal his wrongdoings in the 2000s, told jurors on Wednesday that their clients were kept in the dark about what the R&B singer was up to.
The former employees also believed the video that allegedly shows Kelly sexually assaulting and urinating on a 14-year-old girl in the late 1990s was a fake, their attorneys said as they delivered opening statements in the R&B artist’s second federal trial. The video, which was the focus of a 2008 trial by state prosecutors that resulted in Kelly's acquittal in 2008, is again at the center of this new trial.
Vadim Glozman, an attorney for Derrel McDavid, who was a business manager for Kelly from 1991 to 2014, said that "time and again" his client was told allegations that Kelly was sexually abusing the girl were false and he had no reason to doubt that. Both Kelly and the girl denied the allegations. The girl and her parents told law enforcement, private investigators hired by the R&B artist, and a Cook County grand jury in the early 2000s that she was not the individual in the tape and that she did not have a sexual relationship with Kelly, who was her godfather.
“Anyone in Derrel’s position would have believed that tape was illegitimate,” Glozman said. “Everything he saw … [and] was told led him to believe that the tape was not legitimate.”
But now, more than a decade after Kelly was acquitted, the girl, who is now 37 years old, is expected to testify that she lied to authorities under pressure from Kelly and that it is, in fact, her in the video. In this trial, which is expected to go on for at least a month, federal prosecutors intend to show the jury snippets of that video and two others that they claim show Kelly sexually abusing the girl as they try to prove to a jury that the R&B singer enticed underage girls to have sex with him, produced multiple videos of child sex abuse materials, and that he covered it up with the help of two of his employees.
“This trial is about Kelly’s hidden side,” assistant US attorney Jason Julien said during his opening statement Wednesday.
Kelly is facing 13 counts, including producing and receiving child sexual abuse images and obstructing justice. He is accused of recording videos of himself sexually abusing the 14-year-old girl from the 2008 trial, and two other minors, and is facing charges of luring them and two more underage girls to have sex with him. Prosecutors also allege that he schemed with associates to round up the illicit tapes, pay off witnesses, and persuade the girl at the center of the 2008 case and her parents to lie about the true nature of her relationship with Kelly. In this case, the girl is being referred to under the pseudonym Jane and will testify under that name, Julien said.
The trial comes less than two months after Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison following his conviction by a federal jury in New York last year on racketeering and sex trafficking charges. The decadeslong sentence marked the first time the R&B artist has faced consequences for the sexual abuse claims that have dogged him for decades.
Unlike in New York, Kelly is on trial with two codefendants: McDavid, his former business manager, and Milton Brown, a former assistant for Kelly. McDavid is accused of conspiring to obstruct justice and of receiving and conspiring to receive child sexual abuse images, while Brown is facing one count of conspiring to receive child sexual abuse images. All three men have pleaded not guilty, and over the years they’ve described his accusers as liars motivated by money.
According to the Chicago indictment, Kelly and McDavid began paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to an acquaintance in 2001 to collect the videos that purportedly showed Kelly sexually abusing the girls. Then sometime around June 2008, while Kelly was on trial for the state charges and acquitted, the pair and their associates paid that person $170,000 to cancel a news conference he had scheduled to announce that he had recovered videos showing the singer sexually abusing minors, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors also allege that in 2007, Kelly and McDavid agreed to pay an adult woman named Lisa Van Allen approximately $250,000 to return a tape that showed the artist having sex with her and Jane, who was then a minor. Kelly and McDavid also allegedly paid a third individual $100,000 for their efforts to return tapes depicting Kelly with the woman and Jane. As a condition of the payments, the individuals had to take polygraph examinations to determine whether they had returned all copies of the tapes.
Van Allen testified about her sexual relationship with Kelly and Jane in 2008 and also told her story in the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, which detailed the allegations of sexual abuse that have dogged the singer for decades.
During their opening statements, attorneys for the three men attempted to cast doubt over the legitimacy of federal prosecutors’ case, raising issues with the timing of the trial, the authenticity of the videos, the ages of the alleged victims, and the motivations of other potential witnesses.
Kelly's attorney Jennifer Bonjean questioned the government’s decision to wait “over two decades” to prosecute him for "a hodgepodge of charges" in what she described as “a mob justice climate.” Bonjean also said that the case was based on social media movements and the docuseries, which aired in early 2019 — just months before Kelly was indicted in New York and Chicago.
She told jurors that the government was trying to paint her client "literally as a monster," and that while he is "imperfect" he's not the bad guy they're making him out to be.
"On his journey from poverty to stardom, he stumbled," Bonjean said, adding that he was "ill-equipped" to deal with fame given his difficulties reading and writing and relied on people like McDavid to guide him.
In her statement to the jury, Bonjean claimed that the video that the government says depicts a threesome between Kelly, Jane, and the adult woman but will not be shown at trial, "doesn’t exist and it never existed." She also claimed that the other videos "have no evidentiary value" unless someone can authenticate them, and decried the allegations that Kelly was able to keep Jane and her parents from telling the truth for almost two decades.
“Mr. Kelly had this Svengali grip on this family for what? 20 years?” Bonjean said. “You’re going to have to decide whether that makes much sense at all.”
While Bonjean took aim at the legitimacy of the tapes, as Kelly's defense did in 2008, attorneys for McDavid and Brown seemed to accept the government's central claim that the videos in question are child sexual abuse images but said their clients just didn't have the information to know that back then.
Kathleen Leon, an attorney for Brown, said her client had “no knowledge” of the alleged conspiracy to receive child sex abuse images while working as an assistant for Kelly. Like others, Brown believed that the tape “was a fake,” Leon added.
After Kelly was acquitted in 2008, Brown continued to work for the R&B artist and abide by his system of rules. “Milton would not have known more than the general public,” Leon said.
Glozman, McDavid's attorney, said that his client was not involved in any agreements with anyone except Kelly’s team of attorneys and that based on the information he had at the time of the 2008 trial he believed the infamous tape was “a fraud.”
“Derrel McDavid did his job with excellence,” Glozman said, adding that doing your job “is not a crime.”
After hearing Glozman's opening statement, Bonjean motioned for a mistrial on Wednesday afternoon, saying that McDavid defense seemed to be "finger-pointing" her client. Kelly's legal team had previously attempted to sever the case so he could face a separate trial from McDavid, but that request was denied. US District Court Judge Harry Leinenweber promptly denied Bonjean's request and moved on with the trial.
Following attorneys' opening statements, jurors heard testimony from Dr. Darrel Turner, a clinical psychologist who talked generally about how sexual offenders groom their victims, as well as Ann Meckelborg, a managing director for the Recording Academy, who spoke about Kelly's Grammy Awards history. During Meckelborg's testimony, prosecutors played a clip of Kelly performing his hit song "I Believe I Can Fly" at the Grammys ceremony in 1998, when he won three awards for the track. Jurors also heard from retired Chicago police detective Daniel Everett, who began investigating allegations that Kelly was sexually abusing Jane in 2000.
The trial will resume Thursday morning with Bonjean's cross-examination of Everett.
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