Jury selection in R. Kelly’s federal trial in Chicago began Monday, when the judge polled more than 60 would-be jurors about what they know about the indicted R&B star and the charges against him.
At the end of the day, a total of 34 jurors had survived the first round of questioning – about six of where the judge said he wanted to be before moving on to the next phase.
Just before court began, Kelly, dressed in a gray suit and tan shirt, was brought into the large ceremonial courtroom of the Dirksen US Courthouse and took his place at a crowded defense table, sometimes leaning forward to see through a face covering with him to whisper lawyers.
The identities of potential jurors are shielded from the public during the trial, and very little was revealed about them when US District Judge Harry Leinenweber asked each person to clarify their answers to a written questionnaire.
Of the 63 people the judge interviewed individually over nearly six hours, a total of 29 were released, most of whom said they had difficulty being impartial with Kelly or his co-defendants.
Some judges will try to “rehabilitate” them when faced with a prospective juror who questions their neutrality by reminding them of their civic duty to be fair and asking specifically if they can fulfill that obligation. But on Monday, Leinenweber rejected everyone who expressed even the slightest doubt about their impartiality.
“When I think about the case and the charges over the weekend, I don’t really believe I can be impartial anymore,” said one woman at the beginning of the interview. Leinenweber promptly excused her.
Another woman said she took Tae Kwon Do classes with Kelly’s children years ago, and the experience may discourage her from having an open mind.
Another woman said her job is to advocate for children.
“I would do my best to be fair and impartial. My only concern might be that the defense kicks in,” she said before Leinenweber excused her.
Much of the questioning revolved around the Surviving R. Kelly documentaries, which many potential jurors said they had seen or at least heard about.
One woman said she saw the whole thing but it wouldn’t take away from her ability to be fair – leading to an audible giggle from some Kelly supporters watching from the courtroom gallery.
Another prospective juror said he saw part of an episode with his wife but couldn’t remember anything significant.
“I think I would have even fallen asleep before the end,” he said.
Leinenweber has said he wants a pool of at least 40 people before moving on to the next phase, where both prosecutors and defense attorneys will use their determined strikes to further weed out the panel.
The opening speech in the case could begin as early as Tuesday.
Before jury selection began at approximately 10:45 a.m., Leinenweber rushed through a series of pretrial decisions, ruling in favor of prosecutors on several high-profile motions.
The judge denied co-defendant Kelly McDavid’s request for additional records of a former Kelly prosecutor’s communications with a key witness and Jim DeRogatis. He also dismissed McDavid’s arguments that prosecutors botched the chain of evidence on a key video, saying a witness is expected to swear an oath of authenticity.
He also granted prosecutors’ request to bar a doctor’s testimony about Kelly’s low IQ; Kelly’s attorneys then said for the record they decided against calling the doctor in court anyway.
Leinenweber also denied a defense motion to dismiss jurors who had seen any portion of Lifetime’s documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. Kelly’s lawyers had argued that anyone who saw part of the series couldn’t be fair.
However, Leinenweber said a blanket denial of people who had seen any part of the show was not appropriate.
Apparently, in a hearing last week, Leinenweber decided on many of the applications that were never made public. Linenweber’s verdicts were also not made public until he read them from the bench on Monday morning.
In a filing Sunday, Kelly’s attorney Jennifer Bonjean wrote that the potential pitfalls of the series, which details years-long allegations of sexual misconduct against the Chicago-born R&B singer, go well beyond the usual concerns that juries face negative pre-trial publicity are exposed .
“This is a question for potential jurors who have a mountain of information about the specific allegations in this case and the witness stories that are central to this trial and may or may not be admissible,” Bonjean wrote. “Allowing a person to sit on that jury who has seen ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ is no different than allowing a juror to sit on that jury who in this case was allowed to preview the to see discovery.”
A pool of about 100 potential jurors came to the Dirksen US Courthouse last week to fill out questionnaires, including their thoughts on the high-profile defendant who was sentenced to 30 years in prison on federal racketeering charges in New York in June.
Kelly, 55, was charged with child pornography and obstruction of justice in a 2019 indictment that alleges he conspired with others years ago to rig his Cook County trial by paying a teenage girl , whom he sexually assaulted on a now infamous videotape.
Also on trial are Kelly’s former CEO McDavid and another employee, Milton “June” Brown, who the indictment says planned to buy back incriminating sex tapes taken from Kelly’s collection and to hide years of alleged sexual abuse of underage girls.
Although Kelly could spend the rest of his life behind bars, the Chicago trial is imminent seems ripe for intrigue.
For one, Kelly’s attorney Bonjean is a seasoned litigator who relishes embracing what she portrays as an uncontrolled and overzealous government representing controversial clients like actor Bill Cosby and mobster disciple boss Larry Hoover. Brown’s attorney, Mary Judge, is also well-respected and has been with the Chicago Attorney’s Office for 25 years.
McDavid, meanwhile, is being represented by Chicago attorneys Beau Brindley and Vadim Glozman, who have shown in a series of pretrial filings that they intend to aggressively fight the charges, even if it means potentially throwing Kelly under the bus.
And in an added twist, Brindley himself was acquitted by linen weber seven years ago on criminal charges of tricking clients into lying on the witness stand — a case first reported to the FBI by the Tribune raided Brindley’s office in the famous Monadnock Building across from the Chicago Federal Courthouse.
The attorney defending Brindley in this case, the late Edward Genson, was Kelly’s lead counsel in his 2008 child pornography trial.
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Linenweber, 85, is one of the senior statesmen at the Federal Bank of Chicago, with a reputation for fairness, a keen knowledge of the law, and a fairly low tolerance for nonsense.
However shattering the evidence, Kelly’s trial is the most prominent event at Dirksen’s typically buttoned-down US Courthouse in the 2 1/2 years since the pandemic began.
Kelly’s diehard followers — some who in his case live tweet events and post social media videos that garner millions of views — are expected to turn out in droves to support him, just as they did with his first trial in Cook County and his Brooklyn trial.
DeRogotis was subpoenaed as a potential witness for the defense.