In May of 2008, on the day a Cook County jury was deliberating his fate on 14 counts of producing child pornography, Robert Kelly came to court with a new accessory to his tailored suit: a Carolina-blue handkerchief, billowing from the breast pocket like a flag marking his heart.
When the jury bell rang at half-past one, and Judge Vincent Gaughan’s clerk prepared to read the verdict, Kelly held hands with his lawyers, forming an expensively dressed prayer chain. At every “not guilty,” he whispered, “Thank you, Jesus.” By the time he stood up to hug his lawyer, Edward Genson, the handkerchief was limp from sweat in his fingers.
After thanking Jesus 14 times, Kelly left the Cook County Criminal Courts Building at 26th and California, and — prosecutors in his current trial in Brooklyn allege — returned to sexually exploiting underage girls. Kelly is facing federal charges of sex trafficking and racketeering for allegedly maintaining a stable of young women at his Olympia Fields mansion.
R. Kelly beat the rap in Chicago because his alleged victim — who was said to be 14 when he recorded himself having sex with her, then urinating in her mouth — refused to cooperate with prosecutors or testify against him. That was why Kelly was tried for child pornography — making the tape itself — instead of statutory rape. The State’s Attorney’s office didn’t have a victim to show a jury; it only had a tape. The child pornography charge meant that jurors couldn’t hear that the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services had investigated Kelly’s relationship with the girl, since those investigations were not material to Kelly’s recording their encounter.
Fourteen witnesses identified R. Kelly and the teenage girl on the sex tape. One of the teenager’s longtime friends testified that she and the girl visited Kelly “dozens of times” at his gym, his studio and his house. Kelly’s former personal assistant told of the girl showing up at Kelly’s house with an overnight bag.
By way of rebuttal, the defense summoned three of the girl’s relatives. They all told the same story: Robert and the girl aren’t on the tape. They stuck to it even when Assistant State’s Attorney Shauna Boliker asked them to compare a photo of the girl in a video with a photo of the sex-tape girl. The portraits looked identical: turned-up nose, chubby cheeks and chin, hair cut over the ears.
“I don’t [recognize her],” said the girl’s uncle. “They’re not the same.”
(Federal prosecutors in Illinois have charged that Kelly and two associates paid off or intimidated victims and witnesses in his child pornography trial.)
“Initially, I voted guilty because I thought it was R. Kelly on the tape,” a juror said afterward. “I still think that. What held me back was [the girl]. It wasn’t 100% the way her childhood friends identified her. That played heavily on my thoughts.”
Another juror, who asked not to be named, said “the absence of [the girl] and her family was a major lack of evidence.”
In Chicago, Kelly’s acquittal was guaranteed before the trial ever started because the girl who allegedly appeared on his sex tape wouldn’t testify. At Kelly’s trial in Brooklyn, though, his alleged victims are testifying against him — including one he met at his child pornography trial. If Kelly goes to prison this time, he’ll be able to trace his downfall back to 26th and California, where he thought he’d won his freedom.
Jerhonda Johnson was one of two teenage groupies who attended every session of Kelly’s three-week trial. Johnson was 15, but lied that she was 18 so she could get into the courtroom. As Kelly walked from his chauffeured car to the courthouse, Johnson stood on the steps and cried, “We love you, Rob!” earning a stiff-armed wave from the singer.
I covered the trial for the now-defunct Blender magazine, and interviewed Johnson during a break in the trial.
“I’ve seen that tape,” Johnson said. “That ain’t him on that tape. He wouldn’t do nothin’ like that.”
“So what would you say if R. Kelly asked you out?” I inquired.
“Yes! He ain’t even gotta finish the sentence.”
“What if he wanted to tape you?”
Johnson paused a beat.
“Just don’t let it go public.”
As it turned out, Kelly did ask Johnson out, and she did say yes. A year after the trial, when Johnson was 16, she was invited to a party at Kelly’s Olympia Fields mansion. Kelly recognized her, got her number and asked her to visit him privately. Last month, Johnson — who now goes by her married name, Jerhonda Johnson Pace — testified at Kelly’s trial that the singer got her drunk, took her virginity and added her to the stable of women at his mansion who were all expected to follow “Rob’s Rules.”
According to the Chicago Tribune’s report on the trial:
She had to wear baggy clothes around him, had to call him “Daddy,” stand up and kiss him or look at him whenever he entered a room, and when she disagreed with him she got a slap in the face or worse, she said. He would record them having sex and watch the tape with her afterward, to critique her performance, she said. Ultimately, she contracted herpes, she said.
Johnson is one of six women testifying that Kelly sexually exploited them. The trial is now in its third week, with the government expected to rest its case Sept. 13. This time, unlike 13 years ago, jurors are seeing the faces and hearing the voices of Kelly’s alleged victims. The rap in Brooklyn will be harder to beat than the rap in Chicago.