Trapped in a Courtroom: The R. Kelly Trial

Prosecutors allege that R. Kelly made a sex tape with a girl who may have been as young as 13. This week, a Chicago jury and members of the press corps — including Slate's Josh Levine — watched that 27-minute video.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

In Chicago, a bizarre trial is underway concerning a bizarre act allegedly performed by a recording artist who has sold more than 35 million albums. R. Kelly, prosecutors allege, performed and videotaped an act as degrading as it was sexual. He was in his mid-30s. The other person in the video, prosecutor say, was a teenage girl. Ten years later, he is on trial for child pornography. This week, the jury had to watch that 27-minute sex tape. Some members of the press watched it, too. Josh Levin is one such guy. He's covering the trial for Slate. Hi there, Josh.

Mr. JOSH LEVIN (Associate Editor, Slate.com): Hi, how are you?

PESCA: Good. R. Kelly's defense is really pretty simple. He's just saying it wasn't me, and the defense team also says the girl in the video, or the girl the prosecutors are pointing to, it wasn't her. You saw the tape. The jury saw the tape. How does that defense work? What - does the guy look like him?

Mr. LEVIN: The guy definitely looks like him. As he said, it - the it-wasn't-me defense, which I'm calling the Shaggy defense, after the popular reggae song. It definitely looks like R. Kelly. You know, it's harder to tell if it looks like the girl in the video, obviously, because members of the press, you know, members of the public were not as familiar with what she looks like.

PESCA: And you know, the effects of aging from, you know,13 to 23 are a lot bigger than from, you know, the age that R. Kelly is now.

Mr. LEVIN: Yeah, and one thing that's actually come up is that the effects of aging from 12 to 14 are so huge, you know...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LEVIN: Somebody can look very different.

PESCA: The defense is saying - one of the things they're - one of the reasons they're giving that shows that it's not R. Kelly on the tape is that the man of the tape doesn't have a mole on his back, and R. Kelly does. Will R. Kelly be showing his mole to the jury?

Mr. LEVIN: I really don't know. That's would be a dramatic moment, if that happens, and it would - you know, maybe when the defense presents its case in the weeks to come, but that would be an exciting moment.

PESCA: And will there - is there any word that the prosecution has some mole expert or someone to talk about, can a mole be surgically attached? Are they going to really debate the mole? Will that be a big point in this trial?

Mr. LEVIN: It seems like it's going to be. I mean, this tape, they're making a huge issue out of the fact that its provenance is really unknown. You know, it showed up in the mailbox of a reporter from the Chicago Sun Times. He doesn't know where it came from. It was bootlegged on the streets, you know, every sort of urban center in America, and nobody really seems to know what generation of tape these are, and the defense is basically saying, who knows what could happen to this tape? It could have been digitally altered. There could have been moles, you know, added, removed. There could be people's heads on other people's bodies.

PESCA: Yeah, in fact, didn't the Wayans brothers somehow be - get introduced as evidence?

Mr. LEVIN: Yeah, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVIN: And this is what I'm calling the little-man defense. Sam Adam Jr., who's a very sort of charismatic, bombastic defense attorney, confronted the alleged victim's best friend in a very dramatic moment of testimony where he said, have you seen the Wayman (ph) brothers movie, "Little Man"?

PESCA: The Waymans (ph)?

Mr. LEVIN: The Wayman brothers. Yeah. You know, he got their name a little wrong, but I don't know if they mind. And in this movie, Marlon Wayans' head is digitally attached to the body of a little person to not extremely-realistic effect. So, you know, the attorney was asking the best friend whether she found that to be a convincing digital montage. She said not really. It wasn't the best moment for the defense.

PESCA: Yeah, it's sort of like saying, did you see "Jurassic Park"? They can make dinosaurs. Why can't they make a fake R. Kelly?

Mr. LEVIN: Right and I wrote in my piece, you know, it's like if you argued, you know, that, is it true that, in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," and the cartoon character and the people, well, you know, is that real?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah. Did Gene Kelly dance with mouse? How did the judge - give me the - set the scene. How did the judge prepare the courtroom for introducing this tape, which is child pornography?

Mr. LEVIN: It is, yeah. So the judge's media liaison gathered us all together outside the court room and said - it was sort of a strange scene, a little bit tense. But he said that if we drew - and this was directed not just to the courtroom sketch artist, but everyone - but if we drew depictions or sketches or doodles of what we saw on the screen, that we could be potentially creating child pornography.

And it's - you know, I wasn't expecting to hear that, but it's this weird situation, because, you know, you're not - we're not supposed to be watching child pornography. Now, maybe the defense is saying it isn't, because, you know, who knows? Maybe the girl is over 18. But the prosecution is definitely saying it's child pornography, so it's sort of strange to be allowed, encouraged to watch it, you know?

PESCA: Well, I hope we don't get too descriptive in our discussion, and that would open us up for some sort of prosecution.

Mr. LEVIN: I wouldn't worry too much about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVIN: I don't think I'm going to get too graphic.

PESCA: Well, I want to ask one last question. What have the atmospherics of the trial been like? A lot of R. Kelly fans showing up?

Mr. LEVIN: Yeah, you know, it's not like, say, the Michael Jackson trial, where he's got this sort of coalition of sign-waving weirdoes, you know? No offence to Michael Jackson fans. But there's definitely a lot of excitement when he emerges from the courtroom, and you know, you can't help but, you know, note the irony of - it's all sort of young girls screaming for him and, you know, whipping out their camera phones, and excitedly calling their friends when they catch a glimpse of him.

PESCA: All right, Josh Levin is an associate editor at Slate. Thanks a lot, Josh.

Mr. LEVIN: Thank you.

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