The jury that will decide R. Kelly’s fate in Chicago’s federal court was selected Tuesday after more than 12 hours of questioning over two days that centered on potential biases over the onslaught of media coverage in the case.
Opening statements in the hot-button trial are scheduled for Wednesday morning at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. The trial is getting underway nearly one year to the day of opening statements in Kelly’s first federal trial in New York, which ended with a conviction and 30-year sentence.
The jury of 12 regular members and six alternates was sworn in by U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, who questioned more than 100 potential jurors on Monday and Tuesday, nearly half of whom he dismissed for “cause.”
The makeup of the regular jury is: Four white women, four Black women, two white men, and two Black men. They include a former attorney who is now a stay-at-home mom and a library worker who said she knew about the case from the headlines in the newspapers she puts on the shelf.
Another female juror, a retiree whose two children are lawyers, said during questioning that she’d never seen the high-profile docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” but that her brother had told her “If I watched (it) I’d probably get kicked off” the jury.
Many of those on the panel said they’d heard of Kelly and the accusations against him before, but could remain fair. Some even said they’d seen parts of “Surviving R. Kelly” but had formed no opinion about Kelly himself.
One of the Black women selected for the jury said she thinks she’d seen all 12 episodes of the series, but insisted it would not affect her ability to be fair — a comment that prompted some audible snickers from a few Kelly supporters watching from the courtroom gallery on Monday.
The final panel was selected after prosecutors and attorneys for Kelly and his two-co-defendants used their peremptory strikes to further pare down the jury pool.
Things got testy when Kelly’s lead attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, successfully challenged three of the prosecution’s strikes of Black jurors, alleging they were based solely on race.
She said prosecutors were displaying a pattern against Black jurors that was “quite disturbing,” though Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannice Appenteng said they had reasons to remove the jurors unrelated to race.
On the flip side, nearly every single peremptory strike by the defense involving the regular jury makeup was of a white person — 12 in all. The defense also moved to strike one Asian woman and one Black woman. Prosecutors, however, did not raise any challenges based on that racial breakdown.
The panelists were sworn in just before 6 p.m.
“It’s been a long day,” Leinenweber said from the bench after jurors were excused for the night. “Have a nice evening. I’m going to have a martini in a short while.”
Kelly, 55, was charged with child pornography and obstruction of justice in a 2019 indictment alleging he conspired with others to rig his Cook County trial years ago by paying off a teenage girl whom he sexually assaulted on a now-infamous videotape.
Also facing trial are Kelly’s former business manager, Derrel McDavid, and another associate, Milton “June” Brown, who, according to the indictment, schemed to buy back incriminating sex tapes that had been taken from Kelly’s collection and hide years of alleged sexual abuse of underage girls.
The trial is expected to last about four weeks.
A total of 41 potential jurors were questioned Tuesday. Among those excused was a woman who suffered from a dizzy spell just as Leinenweber was asking her how long she had lived in her current address. Emergency responders were summoned to the building, and the woman was dismissed from jury duty.
Throughout the selection process, Leinenweber’s questions for each potential juror focused on what they might have seen or heard about Kelly in the news, and whether they’ve watched the Lifetime docuseries that detailed many of the sexual misconduct allegations that are part of the indictment.
Seated at the defense table, Kelly took an active part in the selection process, putting headphones on to listen to sidebar conversations and whispering often with his attorneys.
The singer also visibly reacted to many prospective jurors’ answers, including one woman, a retired teacher, who had him laughing out loud when she proudly said she’d filled out the questionnaire “all by myself.”
Attorneys for McDavid, meanwhile, filed a motion late Monday arguing that the indictment should be thrown out altogether, saying prosecutors waited an “inexcusable and unnecessary” amount of time to bring the charges.
In the decades since the alleged conduct occurred, the filing states, key witnesses who could help McDavid’s case have died. And important evidence related to Kelly’s 2008 trial in Cook County Circuit Court were destroyed after the standard seven years had passed, McDavid’s attorneys argue.
Federal authorities have known about the central videotape for years, and about at least one agreement to try to take back another incriminating tape, the filing alleges.
“(Prosecutors) did nothing while being fully aware (of) the allegations and possessing evidence for decades. As a result, they let substantial pieces of evidence get lost to time,” the filing states.
Leinenweber said Tuesday he would defer ruling on the request.
Potential jurors’ identities are being shielded from the public during the jury selection, and very little was revealed about them as Leinenweber asked each person to clarify answers they gave on a written questionnaire.
The majority of those who were dismissed “for cause” by the judge said they would have trouble being fair to Kelly due to what they already knew about the case. Others have claimed medical issues or other hardships would make it difficult to serve for such a lengthy period.
Some judges, faced with a prospective juror who is iffy about their neutrality, will try to “rehabilitate” them — reminding them of their civic duty to be fair, and asking pointedly if they can fulfill that obligation. But Leinenweber dismissed everyone who expressed even the tiniest doubts about their impartiality.
The trial is Kelly’s first criminal case to go before a jury in his hometown since his stunning acquittal 14 years ago on the Cook County case.
Kelly faces a total of 13 counts, including production of child pornography, conspiracy to produce child pornography, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Some of the counts carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years behind bars if convicted, while others have ranges of from 5 to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors are also seeking a personal money forfeiture of $1.5 million from Kelly.
Regardless of the outcome, Kelly is still facing decades in prison. In June, he was sentenced to 30 years on federal racketeering charges brought in New York. He is appealing both the jury’s verdict and the sentence in that case.