Superstar-turned-felon R. Kelly wouldn’t be eligible for release until 2066, a year shy of his 100th birthday, if a federal judge accepts prosecutors’ recommendations at his sentencing hearing Thursday in his hometown of Chicago.
Kelly, 56, will be sentenced on his convictions from last year in Chicago of child pornography and enticement. He is already serving 30 years for his 2021 racketeering and sex trafficking convictions in New York.
The central question for Judge Harry Leinenweber is whether to order that Kelly serve a Chicago sentence simultaneously with the New York sentence or that he start serving his Chicago sentence only after he completes the New York term.
If the singer is ordered to serve the sentences one after the other, that would practically erase any chance of Kelly ever getting out of prison alive.
Here is a look at the potential sentences:
WHAT ARE PROSECUTORS ASKING FOR?
In a sentencing memo last week, they recommended Kelly serve 25 more years and that he serve it consecutively to the New York sentence.
Prosecutors described Kelly as “a serial sexual predator” who used his fame and wealth to reel in star-struck fans to sexually abuse and then discard them. They say he's shown no remorse.
Jurors in Chicago convicted Kelly on three counts each of producing child porn and the enticement of minors for sex. Kelly was acquitted of the marquee count alleging he successfully rigged his 2008 state child pornography trial.
Prosecutors acknowledged a 25-year sentence would be higher than sentencing guidelines suggest and that a consecutive sentence would be tantamount to a life sentence.
But they argued Kelly's “desire to sexually abuse children is insatiable” and such a sentence was required “to protect the community from” him.
WHAT SENTENCE DOES THE DEFENSE WANT?
Kelly’s lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, asked for a sentence of around 10 years — on the low end of the guideline range.
She also requested in a series of pre-sentence filings that, whatever prison sentence Leinenweber imposes, he allow Kelly to serve it at the same time as the New York sentence.
Bonjean said Kelly’s existing 30-year term alone means he won't be eligible for release until he is around 80 and that a new consecutive sentence would be a “second life sentence.”
She said an extended sentence for Kelly, who is Black, would also be disproportionate given that, according to her, white rock stars have long gotten away with the behavior for which Kelly was convicted.
WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA FOR A CONSECUTIVE SENTENCE?
By statute, the default for judges is to allow defendants to serve their sentences simultaneously — which courts call “concurrently” — which effectively means they serve only the longest sentence imposed.
But if they conclude a defendant’s crimes were particularly egregious, they can decide that the only way to deter such crimes is to order sentences be served one after the other.
Judges are more likely to order a simultaneous sentence to a sentence imposed in a previous case if the crimes in the two cases are related. While prosecutors say Kelly’s victims in the Chicago case are different, the defense says the allegations were substantially the same.
WHAT DO PROSECUTORS ARGUE?
They say Kelly’s crimes were particularly egregious because they involved children, enticing girls as young as 14 and 15 for sex.
Making those crimes worse, they say, is that “Kelly sought to memorialize his sexual exploitation” by filming them. Some videos became available online, which exacerbated the harm to society, prosecutors said.
“Because Kelly is Kelly, more people have watched child pornography,” their filing said. “The effects of Kelly’s conduct are wide-ranging, incalculable and irreversible.”
WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
Bonjean accused prosecutors of offering an “embellished narrative” in their sentencing memo “to inflame the passions of the public and the Court” against Kelly.
She also said they have sought to get the judge to join what she called the government’s “blood-thirsty campaign to make Kelly a symbol of the #MeToo movement.”
“The government insists on exaggerating Kelly’s misdeeds, sounding more like a teaser for the next installation of ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ than lawyers,” she said.
That is a reference to Lifetime’s 2019 docu-series, “Surviving R. Kelly” — which featured testimonials by his accusers, including several who testified at the 2022 Chicago trial.
Bonjean also hit back at prosecutors for arguing her client has never expressed remorse. She said Kelly had a right to remain silent as he appeals and that prosecutors shouldn't be permitted to use her advice to Kelly not to speak as proof he lacks remorse.
She added that Kelly’s own abuse as a child and illiteracy throughout adulthood also justified leniency. That the conduct that led to charges happened decades ago should also be factored in, she said.
Kelly, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, rose from poverty in Chicago to superstardom, with hits like “I Believe I Can Fly” and the sex-infused “Bump n’ Grind.”
Bonjean said Kelly has already suffered enormously for his legal troubles, including financially. She said his worth once approached $1 billion but that he “is now destitute.”
WILL KELLY ADDRESS THE COURT AT SENTENCING?
It’s not clear he will, though he risks Judge Leinenweber holding that against him. Judges often like to hear expressions of remorse at sentencing. Most defendants do speak.
But defendants who are appealing convictions, as Kelly is, sometimes choose not to. Kelly did not speak at his 2022 sentencing in New York.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm