Jury selection in R. Kelly’s federal trial on charges that he rigged his 2008 state child pornography trial began Monday (Aug. 15) with the judge and attorneys quickly focusing on whether would-be jurors watched a 2019 documentary about sex abuse allegations against the R&B singer.
After denying a request from Kelly’s attorney to automatically exclude anyone from the jury who watched the six-part documentary series, Surviving R. Kelly, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber quizzed potential jurors about how much they watched, what they could recall about it and whether they could be impartial if they were selected.
Jurors were asked whether they watched the documentary in a questionnaire they had already filled out. In one instance, a woman who had left her answer blank acknowledged that she had watched several episodes. She was not immediately excused from serving, however.
In all, the judge dismissed at least half of the some 60 would-be jurors he questioned Monday. Among those dismissed was an elementary school teacher who said he’d have difficulty being impartial given the subject matter of the trial, a man who said many of his closest friends were Chicago cops and a woman who said she once took martial arts classes with Kelly’s kids.
Among those kept in the pool of possible jurors was a man with a post-graduate degree in classical music and several people who said they watched part of the documentary on Kelly but who assured the judge they could give the singer a fair trial.
Jury selection was expected to resume on Tuesday.
The trial centers on whether Kelly threatened and paid off a girl with whom he allegedly videotaped himself having sex when he was around 30 and she was no older than 14. Jurors in the 2008 child pornography trial acquitted Kelly, with some later explaining that they felt they had no choice because the girl did not testify. The woman, now in her 30s and referred to in filings only as “Minor 1,” will be the government’s star witness in the federal trial that’s expected to last four weeks.
Kelly also faces multiple counts of producing and receiving child pornography.
Kelly, 55, already has been sentenced by a New York federal judge to a 30-year prison term for a 2021 conviction on charges that he used his fame to sexually abuse other young fans.
Wearing a light gray suit, yellow dress shirt, a tie and black-rimmed eyeglasses, Kelly gave potential jurors a quick wave as his attorney Jennifer Bonjean introduced him. Kelly also wore a surgical mask as part of COVID-19 protocols for everyone entering the courthouse.
Kelly, who rose from poverty on Chicago’s South Side to become a star singer, songwriter and producer, faces multiple charges at the federal trial. They include four counts of enticement of minors for sex — one each for four other accusers. They, too, are slated to testify.
With the New York sentence alone, Kelly will be around 80 before qualifying for early release. Convictions in Chicago could add decades to Kelly’s New York sentence, which he is appealing. A conviction for just one count of producing child pornography carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Two Kelly associates, Derrel McDavid and Milton Brown, are co-defendants at the Chicago trial. McDavid is accused of helping Kelly fix the 2008 trial, while Brown is charged with receiving child pornography. Like Kelly, they also have denied wrongdoing.
Two state cases also are pending. One is a multiple count sex-abuse case out of Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago. The other is a solicitation case in Minnesota. No trial dates are set for either.
Minor 1 is expected to testify that she was on video having sex with Kelly. The recording was at the heart of the monthlong 2008 trial and was played for jurors almost every day.
Minor 1 first met Kelly in the late 1990s when she was in junior high school. She had tagged along to Kelly’s Chicago recording studio with her aunt, a professional singer working with Kelly. Soon after, Minor 1 told her parents Kelly was going to become her godfather.
Prosecutors say Kelly later threatened and sought to pay off Minor 1 and her parents so they wouldn’t testify in 2008. None of them did.
Double jeopardy rules bar the prosecution of someone for the same crimes they were acquitted of earlier. That doesn’t apply to the federal trial because prosecutors are alleging different crimes related to Minor 1, including obstruction of justice.