R&B Star R. Kelly Faces Child Porn Charges For more than a decade, R. Kelly has topped the charts as one of R&B's most successful artists. But he is also known for his repeated scrapes with the law. On Thursday, he'll be in a Chicago courtroom, facing 14 counts of child pornography.
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R&B Star R. Kelly Faces Child Porn Charges

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Singer R. Kelly has topped the charts since the early '90s. His complicated lyrics veer from occasional gospel to the sexually explicit. He's one of R&B's most successful and most notorious artists. In 2002, a sex tape allegedly containing footage of R. Kelly with a 13-year-old girl surfaced. Now Kelly faces 14 counts of child pornography stemming from that tape. Yesterday, the opening arguments against Robert Kelly began in a Chicago courtroom.

Reporter Steven Gray was there covering the trial for Time Magazine. We'll speak with him in a moment. If you have questions about the R. Kelly trial, 800-989-8255, or send us an email at talk@npr.org. Steven Gray is with is from the studios of WGN in Chicago and it's nice having you on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. STEVEN GRAY (Reporter, Time Magazine): Nice to be here, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: And this trial only came about after six years of - a lot of people thought it would never happen.

Mr. GRAY: That's right, Neal. The charges came at about June of 2002, initially 21 counts of child pornography. Eventually, seven of those charges were dropped. And the trial - the case has essentially dragged on for seemingly bizarre reasons. One reason was that Judge Gaughan, the presiding judge, he fell off a ladder and broke several bones. Another time one of the lead prosecutors had a baby. Just last December, R. Kelly failed to make a scheduled court appearance because his speeding tour bus was stopped by authorities out in Utah, and so he couldn't make it out to back here to Chicago for court the next day. So a lot of people were very skeptical about whether R. Kelly would even face, you know, some jurors.

CONAN: And the other thing that people were curious about, the tape in question - would it be played in court? Obviously, his attorneys objected.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah. It was played on Tuesday, the first day of the actual trial. It was 27 minutes long, roughly.

CONAN: And - there's a wonderful description in your story about that, about how the jurors and the people in the courtroom and R. Kelly himself, the defendant, reacted as the tape was played.

Mr. GRAY: It was an extremely surreal event. You know, it was - a couple of people said to me that it's the sort of thing they may have watched in the privacy of their own homes, and so it just felt very odd for many folks to sit there in a room full of dozens of other people watching that sort of thing. Jurors were - there were mixed feelings among - mixed emotions from some of the jurors. I remember seeing one guy put an ear - one juror put an arm or the hand over his ear. One woman, a middle-aged black woman, a juror, she a couple times, in fact, she put her face down which - it seemed in disgust. R. Kelly at a couple points rocked back in his chair, and it seemed as if he couldn't even watch it at a couple points. But it was definitely a surreal, odd experience.

CONAN: The defense contends that's not him.

Mr. GRAY: Right. You know, R. Kelly said, you know, his attorneys said, well, that's not him. They have essentially questioned the veracity of the tape because keep in mind, this is a copy of a copy of a copy. And so they are also, you know, challenging whether or not this has been dubbed or edited in such a way that, you know, it's not R. Kelly.

CONAN: And also the girl who was in the tape, or the prosecution says was in the tape, says, that's not me, either.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah. This is a key burden for the prosecution because there's no clear victim here. The female allegedly in the video claims that it's not her. And so now prosecutors are left with having to sort of go in a roundabout way of establishing that the female in the video was, in fact, a minor at the time and that, you know, and that it was her. And so now they are expecting to call to testify several of the woman's relatives, the female's relatives.

Yesterday they called Simha Jamison(ph), the 21-year-old former best friend of the woman who essentially identified the female as the person in the tape. But this is clearly, despite the presence of the 27-minute tape, this is not a slam-dunk case.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Gray of Time Magazine who's covering the R. Kelly trial in Chicago. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And here's a question from a caller named Dan, Dan with us from Alabama.

DAN (Caller): Yes. I was wondering why this gentleman was being charged with child pornography instead of just outright child molestation or child rape.

Mr. GRAY: That's a good question. You know, I have not been able to clarify why R. Kelly has only been charged with child pornography, and the primary reason I have not been able to get that clarification is because the presiding judge has issued a gag order on all attorneys and frankly, all court personnel in relation to this case. So I just have not been able to get even basic public documents to clarify a lot of the information that's been out there.

But you also have to keep in mind that it's unclear - prosecutors have to establish that this is - that this was, in fact, a minor, the female in the video was a minor and they've not yet done that. But why R. Kelly has not been charged with say, child molestation or...

CONAN: Statutory rape.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah, statutory rape even, that part I have not been able to clarify in the two or so weeks I've been covering the case.

DAN: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you, Dan. And is the gag order due to the extraordinary publicity around the trial?

Mr. GRAY: The judge's argument essentially is that he wants to limit the - I don't want to put words in his mouth and lose my press credentials, but in a nutshell, he wants to ensure that, you know, that R. Kelly gets a fair trial. But the irony here is that the judge's decorum, the judge's gag order really is - it's stopping this trial from being transparent.

CONAN: And you made a remark about losing your press credentials. A sketch artist did lose press credentials.

Mr. GRAY: Yes. You know, all the journalists who were covering this case were required to sign, essentially, a decorum order. It's very, very, very stringent. And even before opening arguments on Tuesday, the judge sent in one of his - or sent his pro-bono sports person out to warn all of the journalists that we cannot - in particular, sketch artists, that they cannot - or that they expose themselves to child porn charges if they draw depictions of the contents of the video. And apparently - oh and also, another part of the warning was that, you know, essentially you cannot - the sketch artist cannot depict any of the jurors, which, in fact, this sketch artist for the Chicago Tribune did and so she lost her press credentials in a nutshell. So it's like all of us journalists are just walking on eggshells throughout covering this whole case. It's bizarre.

CONAN: Yeah. And so the principle piece of evidence - you talk about a lack of transparency, the public can't see it.

Mr. GRAY: What do you mean?

CONAN: The tape.

Mr. GRAY: Well, I mean, quite a few people have seen it. I mean, this tape was dubbed and sold on street corners in cities across the country, so I think quite a few folks have seen this tape.

CONAN: Tell us also about some of the atmosphere around the trial. You wrote about that in your piece, as well.

Mr. GRAY: Oh, that part. I mean, everything about this case is bizarre. I mean, you've got hard-core R. Kelly loyalists, mainly young black women who - there was a whole row of them. One woman told me that she had skipped school for at least two days to see the trial. A couple of them stopped going to work to, you know, to come and see R. Kelly. Just today the judge apparently, you know, slapped a 500-dollar - held a woman - is holding a woman for 500,000 dollars for apparently screaming 'free R. Kelly' at jurors as they were entering the courtroom. So it's just such a bizarre scene everyday.

CONAN: Steven Gray, thank you very much and we'll check back with you as the trial progresses. How long is it supposed to last?

Mr. GRAY: You know, it's supposed to last about four weeks but, you know, this whole thing is a cliffhanger. We almost had a mistrial on the first day so this thing could end any day.

CONAN: Maybe next week.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah, we don't know, but it's supposed to last at least tomorrow.

CONAN: Steven Gray, thanks again.

Mr. GRAY: Thank you.

CONAN: Steven Gray is a reporter for Time Magazine. He's covering the R. Kelly trial at time.com and he joined us from the studios of WGN in Chicago. Tomorrow it's Science Friday. Ira Flatow will be here, and we'll see you again on Monday. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. ..COST: $00.00

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