R. Kelly Asks for Prison Release (Again) Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

R. Kelly
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

R. Kelly leaves the Leighton Criminal Court Building after a hearing on sexual abuse charges on May 7, 2019 in Chicago.

R. Kelly made a second emergency plea to the New York court to release him from prison to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The singer’s latest bid comes 10 days after the NY Federal Court shot down his previous request to be released pending trial.

U.S. District Judge Anne Donnelly denied Kelly’s initial release request because at that time, there were “no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the MCC in Chicago.” Since her ruling, however, Kelly’s attorneys say in their emergency request filed Thursday (April 16) that the pandemic has now spread to the Chicago jail where the singer is being housed.

Kelly is awaiting trial in New York on charges of racketeering, transportation to engage in illegal sexual activity, and coercion of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity, among other charges. He is also awaiting trial in Illinois regarding separate sexual abuse allegations and is currently being held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.

In his latest emergency motion for release, Kelly’s legal team pleaded with Donnelly, saying there are now six confirmed cases of inmates in the Chicago jail where he is being held, in addition to seven staff members. Kelly’s attorneys cited nationwide figures provided by the Bureau of Prisons on Wednesday acknowledging that there are 500 COVID-19-positive inmates, 298 positive staff and 17 deaths within their system. Attorneys for Kelly say because of this infection spreading through prisons, the singer’s health is at extreme risk.

“Mr. Kelly is experiencing tremendous stress and anxiety in light of the recent COVID-19 developments,” states the memo, filed in the NY court system by Kelly’s attorney, Michael Leonard. “Inmates are reportedly banging on doors, walls, and windows begging for help. The only thing the MCC has done is lock things down, making conditions feel more like solitary confinement: and possibly, because of the nature of this virus, locking in healthy inmates with those who already have the virus but who may not yet be symptomatic.”

Under these conditions, Kelly’s attorney urged the court to release him, arguing that their client is not a flight risk nor a danger to the community. Kelly, they say, would also agree to wear an electronic monitoring device and to live “virtually within the sight line of the federal courthouse in Chicago.”

“Additionally, and possibly more importantly, Mr. Kelly’s entire professional life depends on his exoneration from the current charges pending against him,” the singer’s attorneys argue. “Mr. Kelly’s present confinement, when coupled with the dramatically changed circumstance at the MCC, make it virtually impossible for he and his counsel to prepare for trial in any meaningful way. Not only is he on virtual lockdown, Mr. Kelly now gets one phone call per week. His attorneys cannot visit him.”

Donnelly had previously denied Kelly’s request, saying that the Bureau of Prisons has already enacted emergency measures to protect inmates, such as making soap available, suspending all legal and social visits, suspending inmate facility transfers and providing screening and testing. In addition, the judge said Kelly has not demonstrated that he is within the CDC’s most at-risk group.

“The defendant is fifty-three years old, twelve years younger than the cohort of ‘older adults’ defined by the CDC as high risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” Donnelly wrote in her previous opinion. “Although the defendant has had surgery during his incarceration, he does not explain how his surgical history places him at a higher risk of severe illness.”

Donnelly also said at the time that Kelly is not suitable for release because he has not demonstrated that he is not a fight risk or a danger to the community. Kelly is in custody because “of the risks that he will flee or attempt to obstruct, threaten or intimidate prospective witnesses,” Donnelly said.

Kelly made a similar pitch on March 26 to the Illinois federal court to be released from custody, citing his fear of the possibility of contracting the rapidly spreading coronavirus. That motion, obtained by Billboard and filed by his attorney Steven Greenberg, states that the encouraged social-distancing guidelines from the CDC are "simply impossible" in the correctional facility's close quarters.

"No matter what steps they take the sanitation will be substandard, the risk of an internal pandemic at the MCC is great, and if one does get sick, jail healthcare is notoriously substandard," it also states, mentioning that his legal team has been blocked from entering the facility due to the risk of exposure.

If released on bond as requested, the singer would live with his girlfriend Joycelyn Savage at a Chicago apartment complex. "He would submit to any conditions that this court saw fit, including home incarceration," the motion reads.

Greenberg also compares staying in the facility under the current conditions is "tantamount to making them drink poison." The Illinois court has not yet ruled on Kelly’s request.

Kelly faces several dozen counts of state and federal sexual misconduct charges in Illinois, Minnesota and New York, from sexual assault to heading a racketeering scheme aimed at supplying Kelly with girls. He was jailed in July and has been awaiting trial in a jail one block from the Chicago courthouse, where he attends pretrial hearings. He has participated in hearings in his New York case by video.

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