CHICAGO — After seven days of testimony from 22 witnesses, the prosecution rests, marking the halfway point of R. Kelly’s child-pornography trial. Did the state make a compelling case to convict the R&B singer of making a sex tape with an underage girl? Based on the evidence presented thus far and the defense’s limited success at refuting it, many observers of the trial feel that he may well be convicted. Will the defense be able to recover, or have they already raised enough doubt for an acquittal? Here’s what has happened so far, and what we can expect next:
Is R. Kelly the man on the tape?
The prosecution was better at proving where more than who: They established that the tape was shot at Kelly’s home, which indirectly identifies the man as Kelly. A forensic video expert matched the “Colorado room” of Kelly’s former residence with the room on the tape, by looking at it frame by frame, and the defense has not disputed it. The most Kelly’s attorneys have done, via cross-examination, is suggest that many other people may have had access to the room. Since the room has a keycard entry — and therefore a possible log of entrances and exits — the defense might try to establish that one or more of those people could have been Kelly look-alikes. A relative , perhaps?
THE R. KELLY TRIAL: IN BRIEF
Status of Trial
What’s at Stake?
For full coverage of the ongoing R. Kelly case, see The R. Kelly Trial Reports.
Hence, Kelly’s main defense: It wasn’t him. Defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. told the jurors in his opening argument that the way they would know it wasn’t Kelly is that the man on the tape lacked a certain distinguishing characteristic — a large mole on the lower left side of his back. Adam said they wouldn’t see it — but then they did, when the forensic video expert slowed down a half-second of footage.
The defense has also suggested that actors, or even prostitutes, were hired for the express purpose of setting up Kelly. Who would want to do such a thing? Kelly’s lawyers have been lining up former protégé Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards , former mistress Lisa Van Allen , former manager Barry Hankerson, and Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis as possible suspects — claiming that Sparkle had a grudge over a record deal gone bad, Van Allen was after the singer’s money, and DeRogatis has an “extreme bias” against Kelly. They have yet to elaborate on Hankerson’s possible motives, but this area gets tricky for them, since it opens up the Aaliyah door. (Kelly married the then-15-year-old singer in 1994, using a falsified marriage certificate that listed her age as 18; the marriage was annulled six months later, and Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001.)
It was expected that the prosecution would line up a string of witnesses to demonstrate that Kelly allegedly has an established pattern of seducing underage girls — several of whom later sued him for criminal sexual conduct. Those women were originally on the witness list, but in the end, they did not testify. Only Van Allen placed Kelly and the underage girl in the same bed, so to speak. But the jury did not hear that Kelly married Aaliyah when she was 15 years old, so if the defense wants to argue that Hankerson — Aaliyah’s uncle — was behind all this, expect some delicate maneuvers to get around why he might have a deep-seated grudge against Kelly.
Was the girl in the tape underage?
A dozen people — four relatives, three childhood friends (along with three of their parents) and two basketball coaches — identified the girl on the tape, collectively placing her at around 13 to 14 years of age when the tape was made. This was based on the girl’s face, voice, haircut and overall size — and in one case, on the necklace she was wearing.
The friends, who had once been a tight clique thanks to playing basketball together, came across as the most convincing. After all, they knew her best and had nothing to gain by coming forward. Their parents came across as well-meaning and concerned parties — one mother broke down and cried while testifying — but the defense tried to suggest that one girl’s legal guardian, Peter Thomas, had contacted parents in their Oak Park neighborhood and told them about the girl in the video, before he’d even seen it himself. That gossip, Kelly lawyer Ed Genson argues, more than their actual memories, shaped the parents’ opinions of who was on the tape.
The girl’s own family members, however, were less-convincing witnesses. One uncle, who had been arrested for possession of crack cocaine, suddenly had a poor memory when the defense cross-examined him. The girl’s cousin, now a touring musician with Lionel Richie, kept smiling during his testimony and glancing over at Kelly.
The prosecution said they weren’t going to compel the girl in question to testify, but they didn’t give the jury a reason why. The implication was that they want to spare her the trauma and embarrassment, and that may well be the case. But it could also be because they didn’t think she would point an accusing finger at Kelly. She denied to the grand jury that she was on the tape, as did her parents, but that information wasn’t given to the jury until the last moments of the prosecution’s case, during cross-examination of Lisa Van Allen.
Instead, the girl’s mother’s sister, Sparkle, stood in for the parents, whether they wanted her to or not. The defense would like nothing better than to paint Sparkle as the villain in this drama (they imply she fabricated the tape in an extortion attempt). But Sparkle came across as protective of her niece, if a bit defiant when Genson shouted at her during cross-examination. Sparkle said that she hasn’t gotten any royalties from Kelly, but she wouldn’t admit to holding a grudge, so the defense needs to flesh out her business dealings with Hankerson to make the jury believe in a conspiracy.
The defense was more successful at dismantling Van Allen — who had placed Kelly and the girl together with a video camera, as they had been during the sexual encounters she said she had with them. But Van Allen may appear unreliable by association, thanks to her ex-boyfriends’ felony fraud convictions. One of those ex-boyfriends is the defense’s “surprise” witness Damon Pryor . And then there’s the whole matter of her allegedly accepting money from Kelly in exchange for a different tape. Was she blackmailing him? But even if she were after Kelly’s money, does it make her sex tape, or the sex tape in the case, any less authentic?
Could the tape be a fabrication?
If the defense wants to suggest Kelly’s enemies tried to ruin him, they will need to suggest not only plausible motives, but also that whoever did it had the means and the opportunity. This is going to be the tough part, because it would take far more time and money than Sparkle, Van Allen, Hankerson and DeRogatis have combined to fabricate something on the scale as this sex tape, according to one forensic video expert who testified. Grant Fredericks told the court that based on the number of images in the footage, it would take someone working nonstop — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — for 44 years to fabricate this tape, and even then, even using today’s technology, there would still be evidence of doctoring or morphing that they could detect. A second forensic video expert from the FBI testified that the tape is authentic. Expect the defense to present an expert named Charles Palm with a different opinion.
The defense has been arguing that the female on the tape is not the girl in question, but a paid prostitute of legal age, and that the girl in question’s head was morphed onto the prostitute’s body. Adam asked all the friends if they could recognize the girl’s body: “You can’t tell it’s her simply by looking at her breasts? Her vagina?” This circumvents the witnesses who ID the girl — sure, they recognize their friend or relative, but just her head. If they’ve never seen her naked, how could they know it’s her body? The only person who testified that she recognized the girl’s breasts was Van Allen, who said she was jealous of them.
The defense doesn’t have to prove anything — proving a case is the prosecution’s job. The defense just has to poke holes in the case, to show reasonable doubt. But so far, they has raised more conspiracy theories than doubt — so expect Kelly’s attorneys to raise the ante in the next week. Will Kelly himself take the stand? It might impress the jury — and right now, he needs all the help he can get.
Find a review of the major players in the R. Kelly trial here . For full coverage of the R. Kelly case, see the R. Kelly Reports and check out this complete timeline of the events leading up to the trial.