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Jury selection began on Monday in R. Kelly’s federal sex-trafficking trial in Brooklyn, even as the R&B singer’s lawyers asked the judge to dismiss charges related to him giving herpes to some of his accusers.
In a filing Monday morning, lawyers for Kelly — whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly — asked the judge to strike down several of the nine indictments filed against him. The attorneys, Thomas A. Farinella and Nicole Blank Becker, said that prosecutors were wrong in bringing several sex-trafficking charges. They also said the singer should not have been charged with breaking New York law when he was accused of giving two accusers herpes.
Farinella and Becker argued the relevant law says that only transmitting “an acute, bacterial venereal disease such as syphilis or gonorrhea” would be considered a misdemeanor, but that giving someone viral diseases such as herpes would not.
Judge Ann Donnelly said she would give prosecutors several days to respond to the motion before making a decision on it.
Several indictments have been brought since Kelly was first arrested and charged in June 2019. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn accused Kelly and people he employed of recruiting girls for him to have sex with and abuse, and of making pornographic videos out of some of those experiences.
Prosecutors referred to five victims in the indictments under the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” three of whom were underage when Kelly is accused of abusing them. The prosecutors also accused Kelly of falsifying identification documents for the now-deceased singer Aaliyah, referred to as Jane Doe #1, when she was 15 years old so that he could legally marry her.
Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him. He appeared in court Monday in a blue sharkskin suit, a blue shirt, and a bright blue tie and sat alongside his four attorneys. He, the attorneys, and the judge were all unmasked.
Opening statements are scheduled to begin on August 18 and the trial, which has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to last for four weeks. Kelly faces a separate set of federal sex-trafficking charges in Chicago, as well as state-level sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
A parade of colorful jurors
Donnelly and the attorneys will select 18 jurors for the trial, 12 of whom will deliberate and six who will serve as alternates.
The judge first addressed prospective jurors in a larger courtroom normally reserved for naturalization ceremonies due to COVID-19 restrictions. No one other than the judge, attorneys, jurors, court staff, and Kelly himself were permitted in the room.
Members of the media watched the proceedings through a wide-angled video feed that made it hard to see anyone’s expression. The courtroom sketch artist, Jane Rosenberg, peered over the wall separating the gallery and the well to see the details on the video screen as she illustrated them.
Donnelly made the potential jurors anonymous, addressing them only by the jury numbers they were given due to the media attention on the trial. Donnelly also forbade jurors from reading any news coverage of the case, and said federal marshals would transport them to and from the courthouse for the duration of the trial.
Potential jurors were then brought one at a time into a separate room, where Donnelly quizzed them about their ability to be fair in the case. She also asked each about their hobbies and their jobs: One mechanical engineering student hoped to use his degree to develop rollercoasters, while an aspiring fashion illustrator answered only “YouTube” when asked about his hobbies.
One of the men in the jury pool noted he is a member of the Association of Old Crows — a professional group for defense contractors who specialize in electronic warfare.
Another man, who liked to crochet and said he planned a trip to Germany to visit his boyfriend, said he wasn’t too familiar with R. Kelly and thought the trial was about Robert Crumb, the 77-year-old cartoonist who signs his work as “R. Crumb.”
One of the accusers in the prosecutors’ case is male, and Donnelly asked the potential jurors whether evidence regarding sexual conduct between people of the same sex would impair their fairness.
All of them said that the evidence wouldn’t influence their ability to be impartial.
Several people in the jury pool said they had been victims of sexual assault in the past, and Donnelly dismissed one who said the experience she had as a child would make it difficult to hear evidence in the case.
The judge questioned 38 jurors Monday. Thirteen were dismissed based on their answers to some questions. The court is looking to narrow down the juror pool to 40 before attorneys begin using their challenges.
Jury selection is scheduled to resume Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.