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A Jury In New York Begins Deliberations In R. Kelly's Federal Trial


A jury in New York is deliberating in R. Kelly's federal trial. He is charged with sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, kidnapping and racketeering.

NPR's arts correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas has been following the trial. Good morning, Anastasia.


KING: What's happened so far?

TSIOULCAS: Well, it's been something of a circus here. Testimony took six weeks. Outside the courthouse, there have been supporters blasting R. Kelly's music and cheering his lawyers and booing the prosecutors as they emerge. And then inside, several witnesses have cried, especially as they describe the abuse they say they have endured. During her concluding argument, Noel, prosecutor Elizabeth Geddes described some video recordings of Kelly forcing a victim to perform oral sex on another man. The jury's seen that video. The media and the public have not. But even her descriptions were pretty harrowing.

KING: And is that the prosecution's case against him, that he's caught on video doing these things?

TSIOULCAS: Well, the heart of the government's case claims that Kelly was the head of a criminal enterprise. They're saying he used his fame and inner circle of friends, employees to lure in victims, who included girls, boys and women. They've called 45 witnesses, including 11 alleged victims, to the stand. And six of them testified they were underage when they began having sexual encounters with Kelly. And in her closing argument, Geddes said, quote, "he used lies, manipulation, threats and physical abuse to dominate his victims. He used his money and public persona to hide his crimes in plain sight." And that pretty much sums up what they're trying to prove now.

KING: How are R. Kelly's lawyers defending him?

TSIOULCAS: Well, R. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. He didn't take the stand in his own defense. And his lawyers only called five witnesses. And all of them were men who either worked for R. Kelly or with him. And in their closing, attorney Deveraux Cannick painted the alleged victims as liars, opportunists and groupies trying to make money. Cannick referenced a Lifetime docu-series about the allegations and said a lot of people watch "Surviving R. Kelly," and unfortunately, a lot of people are now surviving off R. Kelly.

KING: I know you've been watching this trial very carefully. What have you found surprising?

TSIOULCAS: There have been quite a few surprising moments in this trial, Noel. On cross examination, for example, the prosecution asked a defense witness, Kelly's former accountant John Holder, about an org chart he'd made of Kelly's company. It was illustrated like a cartoon octopus. And in retrospect, that was a pretty unfortunate metaphor for a man accused of running an enterprise intended to lure victims into sex crimes.

KING: It's also a very vivid image, isn't it?

TSIOULCAS: It really is. And during his closing argument, Mr. Kelly's lawyer, Deveraux Cannick, compared Kelly's preference that women call him daddy to former Vice President Mike Pence calling his wife mother. He also likened Kelly's lifestyle to that of Hugh Hefner and said that if jurors acquit R. Kelly, they'd be demonstrating moral courage like that of Martin Luther King Jr.

KING: You know, a point of interest here, Anastasia - this is the first high-profile #MeToo trial where the accusers are mostly Black women. Has either the prosecution or the defense mentioned that?

TSIOULCAS: Not overtly, until almost the very last moments of the trial - at one point, assistant U.S. attorney Nadia Shihata said, quote, "the defendants' victims aren't groupies or gold diggers. They're human beings. They're daughters, sisters. Some of them are now mothers. And their lives matter."

KING: I wonder if she was evoking the Black Lives Matter movement.

TSIOULCAS: That's really how it struck me, too, Noel. And I think, also, she was pointing to the power differential between this world-famous performer and these women. The defense has called R. Kelly a musical genius many times during the trial and referenced his artistic collaborators like Whitney Houston. The prosecution, by contrast, has said, his fame and talent don't mean he's innocent. In fact, they're alleging that his wealth and his power were exactly what allowed him to build a network of enablers and helpers.

KING: All right. So all of this has gone to a jury now. What do we know about the jurors in this case?

TSIOULCAS: Actually, surprisingly, not very much at all, even more than usual - because of COVID protocols, the media and public have been seated in overflow courtrooms several floors away. So we've been watching the trial on a video feed. And the jurors aren't on camera, except when they file into the courtroom. What we do know is that the jury is comprised of seven men and five women. Beyond that, what happens next is all up to them. If he's convicted here in New York, R. Kelly faces 10 years to life in prison.

KING: NPR arts correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas - thank you for being with us. We appreciate it.

TSIOULCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.