CHICAGO - A federal jury in Chicago convicted R. Kelly on Wednesday of producing child pornography and enticing girls for sex after a monthlong trial in his hometown, delivering another legal blow to a singer who was once one of the world’s biggest R&B stars.
Prosecutors won convictions on six of the 13 counts against him, with many of the convictions carrying long mandatory sentences. But the government lost the marquee count — that Kelly and his then-business manager successfully rigged his state child pornography trial in 2008.
After deliberating for 11 hours over two days, jurors convicted Kelly of three counts each of producing child pornography and enticement, while acquitting him of obstruction of justice, one count of production of child porn and three counts of receiving child porn.
Both of his co-defendants, including longtime business manager Derrell McDavid — who had told jurors that testimony from four Kelly accusers had led him to change his mind about Kelly’s believability — were acquitted of all charges.
The trial was, in ways, a do-over of Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial, with a key video critical to both. Kelly, who shed tears of joy when jurors acquitted him in 2008, gave a thumbs-up sign to spectators after Wednesday’s verdict but otherwise showed little emotion. Before Kelly was returned to federal lockup, McDavid hugged the Grammy Award-winning singer, who rose from poverty on Chicago’s South Side to become a superstar.
The verdict comes months after a federal judge in New York sentenced Kelly to 30 years in prison in June for racketeering and sex trafficking. Based on that sentence, the 55-year-old won’t be eligible for release until he is around 80.
Two sexual misconduct trials still await Kelly — one in Minnesota and one in state court in Chicago.
Prosecutors at the federal trial in Illinois portrayed Kelly as a master manipulator who used his fame and wealth to reel in star-struck fans, some of them minors, to sexually abuse then discard them.
Kelly, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, was desperate to recover pornographic videos he made and lugged around in a gym bag, witnesses said. They said he offered up to $1 million to recover missing videos before his 2008 trial, knowing they would land him in legal peril. The conspiracy to hide his abuse ran from 2000 to 2020, prosecutors said.
Among the charges McDavid was acquitted of was conspiring with Kelly to rig the 2008 trial. Milton Brown, the other co-defendant and a Kelly associate for years, was acquitted of receiving child pornography.
Just one count of producing child pornography carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. A judge could order Kelly to serve a new sentence simultaneously with or only after the first term is fully served. Federal inmates must serve at least 85% of their sentences.
During closing arguments, Kelly attorney Jennifer Bonjean likened the government’s testimony and evidence to a cockroach and its case to a bowl of soup.
If a cockroach falls into soup, she said, "you don’t just pull out the cockroach and eat the rest of the soup. You throw out the whole soup," she told jurors.
"There are just too many cockroaches," she said of the prosecution’s case.
The three defendants called only a handful of witnesses over four days, including McDavid.
In her closing rebuttal, prosecutor Jeannice Appenteng cited testimony that Kelly’s inner circle increasingly focused on doing what Kelly wanted as his fame boomed in the mid-1990s.
"And ladies and gentlemen, what R. Kelly wanted was to have sex with young girls," she said.
All four Kelly accusers who testified went by pseudonyms or their first names: Jane, Nia, Pauline and Tracy. Some cried when describing the abuse but otherwise spoke calmly and with confidence. A fifth accuser, Brittany, did not testify.
Some dozen Kelly fans regularly attended the trial. On at least one occasion during a break, several made hand signs of a heart at Kelly. He smiled back.
Jane, 37, was the government’s star witness and pivotal to the fixing charge, which accused Kelly of using threats and payoffs to get her to lie to a grand jury before his 2008 trial and to ensure she and her parents wouldn’t testify.
A single video, which state prosecutors said was Kelly abusing a girl of around 14, was the focal point of that trial.
Jane said publicly for the first time that the girl in the video was her at age 14 and that the man was Kelly, who would have been around 30.
Some jurors in the 2008 trial said they had to acquit Kelly because the girl in the video didn’t testify.
At the federal trial in Chicago, Jane told jurors she was 15 when they first had intercourse. Asked how many times they had sex before she turned 18, she answered quietly: "Uncountable times. … Hundreds."
Jane, who belonged to a teenage singing group, first met Kelly in the late 1990s when she was in junior high school. She had visited Kelly’s Chicago recording studio with her aunt, a professional singer. Soon after that, Jane told her parents Kelly was going to be her godfather.
Jane testified that when her parents confronted Kelly in the early 2000s he dropped to his knees and begged them for forgiveness. She said she implored her parents not to take action against Kelly because she loved him.
Defense attorneys suggested a desire for money and fame drove some government witnesses to accuse Kelly, and they accused several people of trying to blackmail him. They also suggested that at least one of his accusers was 17 — the age of consent in Illinois — when Kelly began pursuing her.
R&B superstar R. Kelly arrives at the Daley Center in Chicago to attend a closed-door hearing in a court fight with his ex-wife over child support on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Bonjean implored jurors not to accept the prosecution’s portrayal of her client as "a monster," saying Kelly was forced to rely on others because of intellectual challenges, and that he was sometimes led astray.
Prosecutors played jurors excerpts from three videos that Jane said featured her. Court officials set up opaque screens around the jurors so spectators couldn’t see the videos or the jurors’ reactions.
But the sound was audible. In one video, the girl is heard repeatedly calling the man "daddy." At one point she asks: "Daddy, do you still love me?" The man gives her sexually explicit instructions.
Prosecutors have said Kelly recorded the video that was also evidence in the 2008 trial in a log cabin-themed room at his North Side Chicago home around 1998.
Another accuser, Pauline, said Jane introduced her to Kelly when they were 14-year-old middle school classmates in 1998. She told jurors she still cares for Kelly. But, as a 37-year-old mom, she said she now has a different perspective.
"If somebody did something to my kids," she said, "I’m killing ’em. Period."