CHICAGO – A federal jury was impaneled Tuesday in R. Kelly's hometown of Chicago to decide multiple charges against the R&B singer, as prosecutors and defense attorneys argued toward the end of the process about whether the government was improperly attempting to keep some Blacks off the jury.
Kelly, who is Black, is accused of enticing minors for sex, of producing child pornography and of fixing his 2008 state child pornography trial at which he was acquitted.
As the sides began exercising peremptory challenges — in which they can remove a fixed number of potential jurors from the pool — Kelly attorney Jennifer Bonjean accused prosecutors of seeking to strike Blacks “to deny Mr. Kelly a jury of his peers.”
Prosecutors noted multiple African Americans had already made it onto the jury before the defense objected, and they argued their reasons for wanting to strike some had nothing to do with race. In one case, they said one older man appeared to have a hard time staying awake.
Judge Harry Leinenweber partially agreed with the defense, disallowing prosecutors from striking three Blacks from the jury, and restoring them. About half the 12 jurors impaneled were identified as Black by the judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys.
Six alternates were also selected.
Some of the jurors selected had watched at least part of a six-part documentary series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” about sex abuse allegations against the Grammy award-winning singer. Watching it wasn’t an automatic disqualification as long as a would-be juror could assure Judge Leinenweber they could still be impartial.
Among the 12 jurors selected was a retired real estate agent who had one son who was a prosecutor and another son who was a defense attorney. Another juror was a librarian.
Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday morning, after which prosecutors will begin calling witnesses.
In all, the judge dismissed about half of the more than 100 potential jurors who were vetted over two days in a large, 25th floor courtroom in downtown Chicago.
Among those dismissed was a woman who said she had unfavorable views of police and judges, a woman who said she once took martial arts classes with Kelly’s kids and a man who said he didn't think the IRS should exist.
Leinenweber tended to dismiss would-be jurors when they expressed even the slightest reservations. He dismissed one juror who said large gatherings make him anxious, and a U.S. postal worker who worried mail would be delayed if she wasn't there.
Kelly, dressed in a gray suit and wearing a surgical mask over his mouth and nose, followed proceedings from a defense table, sometimes appearing to study would-be jurors Tuesday as they answered the judge's questions.
During a break around lunch, several Kelly supporters on court spectator benches made heart signs with their hands and directed them at Kelly. He appeared to notice across the courtroom, smiling and nodding his head.
One central focus of the trial will be on whether Kelly threatened and paid off a girl with whom he allegedly videotaped himself having sex when he was about 30 and she was no older than 14. That's the allegation underpinning another of the charges against Kelly, conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Jurors in the 2008 child pornography trial acquitted Kelly, with some later explaining that they felt they had no choice because the girl did not testify. The woman, now in her 30s and referred to in court filings only as “Minor 1,” will be the government’s star witness in the federal trial that's expected to last four weeks.
When she testifies, prosecutors explained in court Monday that they won’t use her real name and won't refer to her as Minor 1. Instead, they will call her by a single pseudonym, “Jane.” Kelly's lawyers suggested they could contest where some of his accusers were minors at the time Kelly is accused if video recording or enticing them,
Kelly, who rose from poverty on Chicago’s South Side to become a star singer, songwriter and producer, will be around 80 before qualifying for early release based on his sentence imposed in New York, which he is appealing. A conviction for just one count of producing child pornography carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Kelly faces four counts of enticement of minors for sex — one each for four other accusers. They, too, are expected to testify.
Two Kelly associates, Derrel McDavid and Milton Brown, are co-defendants at the Chicago trial. McDavid is accused of helping Kelly fix the 2008 trial, while Brown is charged with receiving child pornography. Like Kelly, they also have denied wrongdoing.
Minor 1 is expected to testify that she was on video having sex with Kelly. The recording was at the heart of the monthlong 2008 trial and was played for jurors almost every day.
Minor 1 first met Kelly in the late 1990s when she was in junior high school, according to pre-trial court filings by the government. The government contends she had tagged along to Kelly’s Chicago recording studio with her aunt, a professional singer working with Kelly. Soon after, Minor 1 told her parents Kelly was going to become her godfather.
Prosecutors say Kelly later threatened and sought to pay off Minor 1 and her parents so they wouldn't testify in 2008. None of them did.
Follow AP Legal Affairs Writer Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm