CHICAGO — R. Kelly’s defense nearly got a juror who thought the only bad thing that could be said about him was that he and Jay-Z don’t get along. They almost had a juror who thought the criminal justice system hadn’t given the singer a fair shake because the trial had taken so long to start . And they could have had a juror who thought age-of-sexual-consent laws were “ludicrous.”
But predictably, these prospective jurors were weeded out of the jury pool for Kelly’s child-pornography trial as questioning began in earnest on Monday. By day’s end, three jurors had been selected — one white man, one black man and one black woman — out of the 16 people who had been questioned.
THE R. KELLY TRIAL: IN BRIEF
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For full coverage of the ongoing R. Kelly case, see The R. Kelly Trial Reports.
Usually, questioning of potential jurors, known as voir dire, takes place in group sessions in the open courtroom. But lawyers for both sides, aided by the judge, took aside the people one at a time for interviews in a small back room, where Kelly, wearing a charcoal-colored suit, sat at a table with his lawyers, a trial consultant, the judge and a court reporter.
The defense team was concerned about whether the prospective jurors had read recent reports in the Chicago Sun-Times, but apparently the pool questioned on Monday reads the Chicago Tribune instead. The one prospective juror who said he read the Sun-Times every morning had long ago decided he felt Kelly was guilty, “based on news coverage when he was first indicted six years ago.” Another mostly knew of the case from viewing a Dave Chappelle skit.
Jurors who said they knew (or knew of) someone on the witness list, were quizzed about that, too. Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis’ name came up for one witness, and former R. Kelly manager (and Aaliyah’s uncle) Barry Hankerson came up for another. In both instances, the jurors knew of the witnesses only in a general sense and weren’t aware of anything that was relevant to the case. (“He was married to Gladys Knight, right?” the potential juror asked about Hankerson.)
Some of those questioned mentioned personal hardships that could prevent them from serving on a trial that’s estimated to last four weeks. The reasons ran the gamut from being a Jehovah’s Witness (whose religion doesn’t allow them to sit in judgment) to working nights to having a daughter who might have cervical cancer. This last juror cried as she explained that she might have to drag her daughter back and forth to the doctor over the next few weeks, as she didn’t know the results of the tests yet.
Personal biases or opinions also mattered. One man whose granddaughter had been molested at the age of 5 didn’t think he could be fair to someone accused of a sexual crime. Anyone who had been the victim of a crime was asked how it affected the person’s view of the justice system. What did they think about lawyers? Did they think people with money got better treatment? What about celebrities? One prospective juror brought up the O.J. Simpson trial as an example, saying that he believed that celebrities were more likely to “get off.” Another prospective juror said that he disliked celebrities “showboating around,” just to be photographed by paparazzi. “Like Britney Spears?” the judge asked. “Yes,” the juror said.
Most of the jurors also expressed their distaste for pornography, particularly child pornography. One juror who was selected for the panel said that as the father of two small children, he thought that “child porn is as low as it gets.” Jurors were asked if they would be able to discuss graphic sexual material, including urination in a sexual context, even if that act repulsed them. When one said, “It would be hard,” the judge told him, “Life’s hard.”
One prospective juror surprised both the defense and the prosecution with his views on age-of-consent laws. “It’s ludicrous,” the juror said. “There’s no consistency from state to state, and I don’t think that’s fair. The age of consent is too high. I was discussing this with my son, and he said nature has provided an age of consent. It’s called puberty, and that makes a lot of sense to me.”
For the most part, Kelly seemed disengaged from the process, staring at the table, often holding a tissue to his face as if he had a runny nose or was warding off a bad smell. (The men’s bathroom was only a few feet away from him, and at one point, deputies scrambled to find Lysol to spray in there, though no one else seemed to be affected. However, on Tuesday morning (May 13), a jury consultant asked Kelly if his cold had improved.) But as each juror was asked, “Can you look Mr. Kelly in the eye and tell him you can give him a fair trial?” the singer would put down his tissue, look straight at them, and nod.
A few times, Kelly nodded as if in agreement to a few answers, and sometimes even cracked a smile or two. One prospective juror was asked if he had any experience with crime, so he told a story about how his car had been stolen for a joy ride, only to be returned a week later. Judge Vincent Gaughan then said, “And you know Mr. Kelly had nothing to do with it, correct?” To which the juror turned to Kelly and joked, “Or did you?” Beaming, Kelly put his hand to his face to prevent himself from laughing out loud.
When the state’s attorneys asked that this last juror be dismissed as one of their peremptory challenges (their third of the day), the defense objected, noting that all three of the prosecution’s challenges has been of African-American jurors. Gaughan ruled that the state’s reasons were “race neutral.” When the day’s remaining four jurors (two of whom were African-American) who had yet to be questioned were rotated to the bottom of the list, the defense objected once again.
“I don’t care what color they are,” Gaughan said. “That doesn’t make any difference. That’s the procedure that was agreed to. That’s really out of order.”
Nine jurors and four alternates remain to be selected. Check back for a more detailed report once the full jury has been chosen.
For full coverage of the R. Kelly case, see The R. Kelly Reports.