The jury that will decide R. Kelly’s fate on federal charges stemming from the alleged sexual abuse of minors is expected to be empaneled in a Chicago courtroom on Tuesday after more questioning from the judge the ability of potential jurists to remain impartial.
US District Judge Harry Leinenweber is scheduled to resume jury selection in the case at 10 am in the large ceremonial courtroom at the Dirksen US Courthouse.
The judge questioned a total of 63 potential jurors on Monday, asking each person individually about what they know about the indicted R&B star and the allegations against him and his two co-defendants.
By the end of the day, a total of 34 jurors had made it past the first round of questioning — about six shy of where the judge said he wanted to be before moving on to the next phase, which will involve prosecutors and defense attorneys using peremptory strikes to get to a final panel of 12 regular jurors and six alternates.
Opening statements in the case would then follow, most likely on Wednesday.
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.
Shortly before court began Monday, Kelly, dressed in a gray suit and tan shirt, was escorted into the courtroom by deputy US marshals and took his seat at a crowded defense table, leaning over at times to whisper through a face covering to his attorneys.
Kelly, who has been in federal custody since his July 2019 arrest, gave a nod and a slight wave to the jury pool as his attorney introduced him.
Potential jurors’ identities are being shielded from the public during the proceedings, and very little was revealed about them as Leinenweber asked each person to clarify answers they gave on a written questionnaire.
Of the 63 people questioned individually by the judge over nearly six hours, a total of 29 were dismissed, most of whom reported they would have trouble being impartial to Kelly or his co-defendants.
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 on Monday dismissed everyone who expressed even the tiniest doubts about their impartiality.
“Thinking about the case and the charges over the weekend, I no longer firmly believe that I can be unbiased,” one woman said at the outset of the questioning. Linen weaver promptly excused her.
Another woman said she went to Tae Kwon Do classes with Kelly’s children years ago, and the experience might keep her from being unbiased.
Another woman said her job involves advocating for children.
“I would do my best to be fair, be impartial. My only concern would be the defensiveness side kicking in, perhaps,” she said before Leinenweber excused her.
Much of the questioning revolved around the 2019 Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which many potential jurors said they had watched or had at least heard of it.
Kelly’s lead attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, had asked the judge to automatically strike any juror who’d seen the documentary “for cause, saying the idea that they could remain impartial after such exposure “absurd.”
Leinenweber, though, said he would instead try to drill down on any potential biases through further questioning.
On Monday, one woman said she saw all 12 episodes of the series, but insisted it would not affect her ability to be fair — prompting some audible snickers from a few Kelly supporters watching from the courtroom gallery.
Another prospective juror said he watched part of an episode with his wife but didn’t remember anything substantive about it.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
“I think I might have even fallen asleep before the end of it,” he said.
Leinenweber has said he wanted a winnowed-down pool of at least 40 potential jurors before moving to the peremptory strike phase.
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 for feiture 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.