On the R. Kelly Not-Guilty Verdict


Hey, I made it. I’m the world’s greatest.

When the news came out this past Friday that R. Kelly’s jury had found him not guilty on all counts of child pornography, the first person I told about it had this reaction: “What? Really? Awesome! Or, um, I mean, I guess. Maybe not. Fuck. I don’t know.” I’m paraphrasing here, but I do know that I watched a coworker cycle through about fifteen different reactions in three seconds. The second person I told had the exact same reaction. And if I’m being honest, so did I. For entirely selfish reasons, it’s natural enough to feel good when a favorite musician wriggles out of a predicament that would’ve kept him from making music for a long, long time. Except that I’m pretty sure there’s not one person on the face of the earth who honestly believes that some shadowy miscreants digitally altered the famous Kelly sex-tape, putting his face on some random dude’s body the way special-effects people put Shawn Wayans’s head on a baby in Little Man. It’s basically impossible, considering the costs and logistics and the general pointlessness of such an enterprise. And yet that’s what Kelly’s lawyers claim might’ve happened. The press even called it the Little Man defense. Reading the daily trial reports, I was totally dumbfounded that Kelly’s assuredly very expensive legal team couldn’t have come up with anything better than that.

Another defense strategy: Claiming that the guy in the tape wasn’t Kelly because Kelly has a distinctive mole on his lower back, and that mole wasn’t on the guy in the video. But the prosecutors managed to find a digital-video expert who pointed out the the mole actually was on the guy in the video. Even if they defense lawyers later produced another expert, one who testified that the mole was actually just digital noise, the prosecutors still got in a pretty devastating gotcha moment. I was dead certain Kelly was going to prison after reading about that. But no. He’s free today, and I only have the vaguest of ideas how that could’ve happened.

Those daily reports of the trial probably didn’t quite convey the spell that the Kelly legal team must’ve been working. A couple of years ago, I covered the Irv and Chris Gotti money-laundering trials for this paper. Most of the people paying attention to the case thought those guys were going to prison. This was a federal case, and the federal conviction rate is somewhere in the upper 90s. Before the verdict came out, when I predicted that the Gotti brothers would be getting off, Doug Simmons, then the Voice‘s managing editor, told me I was crazy. They got off. And the only way I can really explain it is that there’s really no way to explain what, exactly, a high-priced lawyer does. They make motions and argue against evidence being admitted and voice objections every few minutes, or at least they did in the Gotti trial, but that doesn’t really cover it. They’re hams. They entertain. They willfully make themselves look like absolute asses if it’ll maybe make the prosecution’s case look a little more ridiculous. They express frustration at prosecution antics in the most overblown, exaggerated ways possible. And I’m guessing jurors appreciate that because trials, even highly-publicized and dramatic trials with lots of big hush-the-crowd moments, are really boring. Most of the time, everyone’s waiting around for the lawyers on both sides to argue some arcane point or for some other case to wrap up. So when someone goes the extra mile to hold everyone’s attention, jurors are probably that much more likely to get people over to their side. Voice web news editor Mike Clancy, who was covering the Gotti trials for A.M. New York back before he worked here, pretty much walked me through the trial stuff that I didn’t understand, and even he’s at a loss to describe how exactly these lawyers work. You know when you’re watching a great lawyer at work, but that doesn’t mean you can explain what makes them great.

Of course, Kelly’s trial was delayed for about a decade before it finally took place, and it must’ve been about impossible to find a jury in Chicago who hadn’t already formed some opinion about it. And jurors have claimed, since the trial ended, that they believe Kelly actually was in the video but that maybe the girl wasn’t. The alleged girl claimed in front of a grand jury that it wasn’t her in the video, and she never testified during the actual trial, so that probably helped out the defense’s case. But this definitely seems to be one of those cases where money and starpower made all the difference, which is pretty gross.

I’m happy Kelly will be able to make more music in the coming years, but in Kelly’s case, it’s impossible to separate the artist from the art. Other than maybe Prince, I can’t name any prominent artists who have sung about freaky sex with anything like Kelly’s specificity and inventiveness and consistency and enthusiasm. He’s been singing passionately about freaky sex since I was in middle school. And so maybe it’s no surprise that his appetites might extend way beyond what’s OK and into some Caligula-level shit. He’s spent something like half his career in the shadow of this trial, and most of his best freaky-sex songs came after those charges had gone public. Right in the middle of the trial, he released a hilariously carefree freestyle over Hotstylz’ great dozens-playing snap novelty “Lookin Boy.” With the very real possibility of years in prison right in front of him, R. Kelly jumps on a song to make fun of girls who look like Shabba Ranks and Flavor Flav and Elmer Fudd and strippers with bullet-wounds. This guy is not normal, and that works out pretty well for those of us who like freaky pop music. But his money and fame just allowed him to escape from what looked like a near-certain prison term for fucking an underaged girl, pissing on her, and taping it. I don’t like to get all moralistic in this space, but that is wrong. R. Kelly’s a great singer, but he’s not that great.

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