Jurors in R. Kelly’s federal trial watched graphic clips Friday of three separate videos allegedly showing the R&B superstar sexually assaulting his young goddaughter in the late 1990s.
While the visuals were obscured from view, courthouse observers could hear much of the audio. A woman testifying under the pseudonym “Jane” identified herself in court Thursday as the girl in the tapes and Kelly as the man, testifying that she was 14 years old when they were filmed.
On the clips, Jane was heard speaking in a high and very young-sounding voice. On one clip, she referred to her “14-year-old” genitals repeatedly. On another she repeated the phrase, as did the man alleged to be Kelly.
“Get on your knees,” Jane was told in another clip. “Daddy, do you still love me?” she responded.
“Of course I do,” was the answer.
Jane could be heard getting directions at several points on what she should do.
“I said don’t move,” the man alleged to be Kelly said on one clip.
“I’m sorry,” Jane responded.
Kelly’s defense so far has not directly contested that it is Kelly on the video clips, only saying that their authenticity could not be verified and that Kelly was previously acquitted for conduct related to them. Nor has the defense given jurors an alternate version of Jane’s narrative of events related to videos. Instead, the defense lawyers are seeking to sow doubt by telling the panel Jane denied it was her on the clips for more than two decades.
Prosecutors had asked U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber to clear the courtroom of media and spectators while the tapes were played since they contained alleged child pornography.
But Leinenweber declined, saying that forcing everyone to leave a public trial was too extreme and that having people hear the audio wasn’t “problematic.” Instead, he had courtroom personnel bring in large, black screens so spectators could not see the jurors or their monitors as they watched. Due to COVID-19 spacing protocols, the jury is seated in the courtroom gallery rather than in the jury box.
Spectators and reporters in the courtroom, meanwhile, were asked to sit in specific areas so they could not see the videos as they played on monitors at the defense and prosecution tables.
Just before the videos were played, Leinenweber, at the request of prosecutors, ordered the audio feed to the overflow courtroom and media room cut off. No explanation for that move was given.
The videos are at the heart of the case against Kelly and his two co-defendants, who are accused of conspiring to pay off victims and witnesses and cover up years of alleged sexual abuse of minors by Kelly.
Earlier Friday, Kelly’s attorney cross-examined the victim allegedly depicted on the videos, who is being referred to by the pseudonym “Jane.” The woman, now 37, 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” documentary series 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, which Jane confirmed.
And in February 2019, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office contacted Jane — it was 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 asked Jane whether that meant she was demanding Kelly pay her for her continued silence. In response, Jane slowly put the cap back on her water bottle, paused and said calmly into the microphone, “That is not correct.”
“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 remained composed under questioning from Bonjean, maintaining eye contact as each question was 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 was 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. Prosecutors objected to this line of questioning 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.
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.
On cross-examination, Jane reiterated that her aunt Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards was the one who pushed her to get closer to Kelly. It is also Jane’s understanding that Edwards is the one who initially leaked the pornographic tape to former Sun-Times journalist Jim DeRogatis, she says.
“You think Sparkle was pushing Kelly on you … used you as bait with Kelly,” Bonjean said, and Jane affirmed.
When prosecutors questioned her on redirect examination, Jane acknowledged that the bulk of their texts merely had to do with scheduling matters.
After about another two and a half hours on the stand, Jane was dismissed.
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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.
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