Since being charged with child pornography five years ago for allegedly videotaping sex acts with a young teenager, R. Kelly has had six best-selling albums, three nationwide tours, a multitude of hits and awards — but no trial.
A series of sometimes bizarre events, including a judge’s tumble from a ladder and a case of appendicitis, have delayed the 40-year-old R&B superstar’s trial far longer than the norm. Kelly is due in a Chicago courtroom Friday for yet another status hearing, but there’s still no trial date in sight as he prepares to release a new album on May 29.
Other celebrity trials, including Michael Jackson’s, have long since begun and ended since Kelly’s indictment. And judging by how long it usually takes such cases to run their course, Kelly’s trial should have finished years ago, legal observers say.
“Five years is a long time,” said Michael Helfand, a Chicago attorney with no links to Kelly’s case. “Most child pornography cases find themselves in a courtroom within a year or two.”
While suspects have a right to demand a swift trial, they’re not obliged to ask for one — especially if they calculate that speed isn’t in their best interests.
Kelly’s lawyer’s may figure that the delays have worked in their client’s favor, and not only because they’ve given him the chance to keep working and making millions.
“You may have a jury that’s going to come in and say, ’So this happened in the 1990s and this is 2007? I’m just not buying it,”’ Helfand said.
Messages left for Kelly’s attorney’s were not returned, and prosecutors declined to comment.
Maybe this summer? Maybe not
Kelly spokesman Allan Mayer says he was told the trial could get under way early this summer. “But,” he added, “I’ve been told ’early in the summer’ for the past three years now.”
The hitmaker born Robert Sylvester Kelly was charged in 2002 after the tape was leaked to the media and bootlegged copies hit the streets nationwide. Authorities said the girl on the tape was as young as 13 when it was made.
Kelly pleaded not guilty, and has said he intends to survive his legal tribulations.
“I’m going through my own struggle ... and you’re either gonna fold or you’re going to stand,” he told The Associated Press in 2005, “and I believe in standing.”
Presiding Judge Vincent Gaughan seemed close to setting a trial date last year. Then he fell off a ladder at home, sending him to the hospital with multiple fractures. By the time he recovered, Kelly needed emergency surgery for a burst appendix, causing him to miss a February status hearing.
Kelly’s attorneys haven’t even conceded he’s on the videotape, saying his likeness may have been computer generated. And they’ve already tried to raise doubts about the identity and age of the girl in the recording.
Prosecutors initially concluded Kelly made the approximately 15-minute recording when he was in his 30s, somewhere between November 1997 and February 2002.
But his attorneys said that 51-month span made it impossible for them to prepare a defense. The judge agreed, and prosecutors later narrowed the time frame down to between January 1998 and October 2000.
Girl involved is now in her 20s
The judge ruled last year he’ll allow the media and public to view the videotape, dismissing objections from both prosecutors and defense attorneys. They argued the video is so lewd it would embarrass the girl involved, who is now in her 20s.
Scheduling also has been complicated by demand for Kelly’s lawyer. Ed Genson, highly sought by the rich and famous for his persuasive powers with jurors, currently represents Conrad Black, the media mogul on trial in Chicago for allegedly helping to plunder millions of dollars from a newspaper conglomerate.
Kelly won a Grammy in 1997 for the gospel-like song “I Believe I Can Fly,” although his biggest hits are sexually charged songs like “Bump N’ Grind” and “Ignition.”
As he awaits trial, he has kept working.
Since being charged, Kelly has released six albums — most of them million-sellers. His current single, “I’m a Flirt,” is in the top 20, and he’s finishing 10 more chapters of his running R&B operetta, “Trapped in the Closet.”
Kelly’s also written a new song, “Rise Up,” about healing in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings; 100 percent of the net proceeds from the song’s sale are going to a victims’ memorial fund.
“He’s always been known as one of the hardest workers in the industry,” said Eric Bradley, music director at Chicago’s popular B96 radio station. “All this has made him work even harder. He’s a machine, artistically.”
But a conviction could send Kelly to prison for up to 15 years, and presumably halt his fast-track career.
His spokesman Mayer says Kelly fully realizes how much is at stake and is eager as anyone to finally get his day in court.
“It’s a terrible thing to have hanging over you,” Mayer said. “But he’s confident that, when all the facts come out, he’s going to be shown to have been not guilty.”