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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Jason Meisner and Megan Crepeau

Defense rests in R. Kelly’s federal trial, setting stage for closing arguments and possible verdict next week

CHICAGO — Derrel McDavid spent hours on the witness stand this week explaining that he once believed the mounting sexual abuse allegations against his boss, R&B superstar R. Kelly, were nothing more than lies from extortionists out for a payday.

But federal prosecutors turned the tables on McDavid’s third day of testimony Friday, portraying McDavid as the one motivated by money, who engaged in a yearslong conspiracy to cover up Kelly’s sexual misconduct by paying off accusers and keeping the gravy train going.

McDavid knew about the lawsuits alleging Kelly’s sexual misconduct but simply wanted “to pay (the claimants) off, to just give them money, to make them go away,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannice Appenteng asserted during a contentious cross-examination.

“It wasn’t about getting to the truth of the matter, right?” she asked.

McDavid responded that she was misstating his testimony.

“It was about protecting your boss and protecting your pocket,” Appenteng said.

“No, ma’am,” McDavid said. “It was not about my pocket.”

McDavid’s testimony in his own defense lasted nearly 14 hours — the bulk of trial proceedings this week in the case against him, Kelly and another former associate, Milton “June” Brown. They are charged with conspiring to conceal evidence of Kelly’s misdeeds; Kelly is also charged with producing and receiving child pornography.

McDavid left the stand Friday afternoon and took his place at the defense table, taking long, deep breaths. Not long afterward, attorneys for all three defendants rested their cases. McDavid and Kelly, during a short recess, chatted briefly in a conversation that ended with chuckles.

Jurors are expected to hear closing arguments all day Monday and begin deliberations Tuesday morning.

After completing jury instructions Friday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber announced that the prosecutors will get a total of three hours for their closings, including any rebuttal argument, while lawyers for Kelly and McDavid will have an hour and a half each.

When Brown’s attorney, Mary Judge, asked for an hour to make her case, Leinenweber quipped, “An hour? You were hardly even mentioned at all. The less you say, the better off you are.” But he granted the request.

In a surprise move late Friday, Leinenweber prevented prosecutors from presenting any witnesses in rebuttal, since they could not immediately bring anyone to the stand Friday afternoon.

Leinenweber is “under pressure” to move things along quickly, he said when prosecutors asked to briefly present witnesses Monday. “Either do it today or not.”

Prosecutors said they were considering calling Barry Hankerson, Kelly’s ex-manager and the uncle of Aaliyah — the R&B ingenue whom Kelly secretly married in 1994 when she was just 15. Leinenweber has repeatedly barred any mention of that relationship during trial, however.

McDavid repeatedly testified he only ever acted at the behest of Kelly’s attorneys, who gave him no indication they ever thought the accusations against Kelly were true. He also mentioned Hankerson often during his marathon testimony, saying he believed the ex-manager was out to ruin Kelly’s career.

Prosecutors on Friday presented McDavid with two letters from Hankerson’s attorney to Kelly’s camp, but McDavid said he did not recognize them, so jurors did not learn anything about their contents. If Hankerson took the stand, prosecutors told the judge, he could discuss the letters.

Given what prosecutors did reveal about the documents, it appears likely that one of them is a letter described to journalist Jim DeRogatis. DeRogatis reported in his 2019 book “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly” that Hankerson’s attorney confirmed for him a “key passage” of a letter: Hankerson was leaving Kelly’s employ “because he believed Kelly needed psychiatric help for a compulsion to pursue underage girls.”

But Leinenweber said he would not allow anyone to testify in rebuttal if they were not available and ready to go Friday afternoon, so when jurors returned to the courtroom, prosecutors announced they would not be calling further witnesses.

Over his extensive testimony Friday, McDavid continued to say he had no reason to believe Kelly was involved in wrongdoing in the late 1990s and 2000s, when Kelly was repeatedly accused of sexually abusing underage girls. McDavid testified that at the time of Kelly’s 2008 Cook County trial, he believed the tape at the center of the charges was phony, and that Kelly was frequently extorted by liars who were out for a payday.

McDavid’s defense depends in large part on the claim he believed Kelly was actually innocent during the time period of the alleged cover-ups, and that he only ever acted at the behest of all the lawyers and investigators he hired.

On prosecutors’ cross-examination, they noted that the main lawyers and investigator who McDavid said informed his views on Kelly’s innocence are all now dead.

“So you are the only one left to describe what was said and what was not said during those conversations, is that right?” Appenteng asked. McDavid answered no.

And McDavid claimed that even though he attended nearly all of Kelly’s 2008 trial, he did not view the video at the center of the case, saying only that he might have glanced at it but did not view it in full or see any explicit content.

That claim seems far-fetched, given that the video was repeatedly broadcast on multiple screens over the course of the trial.

McDavid was often contentious on the stand, telling the prosecutor repeatedly that he thought she was misrepresenting his previous testimony in her questions. Several times, he had a confused expression cross his face, opened his mouth and closed it, before saying, “I don’t recall.”

At one point, when asked about how much he’d earned in commissions from Kelly’s companies during a particular year, McDavid asked Appenteng if she could total it.

“You’re the accountant. Can you total it?” she joked, prompting jurors and spectators to burst into laughter.

McDavid threw his hands up and smiled, saying, “I don’t have a calculator.”

Appenteng noted that McDavid previously said he didn’t believe Kelly’s accusers in part because they didn’t go to police with their claims. But, she noted, McDavid never called law enforcement when he thought Kelly was being stolen from or extorted by people like prosecution witness Charles Freeman.

“You didn’t call the police on Charles Freeman for his extortion attempt? You didn’t want police to see that tape, the tape that contained child pornography, right?”

“No, ma’am,” McDavid responded. McDavid again repeatedly claimed he did not see any of the video that Kelly’s team recovered.

In a particularly testy exchange, prosecutors also pressed McDavid on whether he was really absent for a crucial meeting at an Oak Park hotel.

Kelly’s goddaughter, known in the trial as “Jane,” has previously testified that at that meeting, Kelly told her parents about their sexual contact. Jane said she could not recall whether McDavid was present. However, her mother “Susan” testified McDavid was there, but said Kelly did not make any admissions of wrongdoing.

McDavid on Friday strenuously denied being present for that meeting, a claim prosecutors sought to cast doubt on. McDavid previously testified that the meeting would involve “delicate” matters.

“It’s delicate because Kelly is admitting to having sex with his goddaughter for the first time, right?” Appenteng asked.

“Oh, my god,” Kelly’s defense attorney Jennifer Bonjean exclaimed.

Leinenweber then sustained an objection before one was even made.

After another question about the meeting, McDavid leaned back in his chair and said directly to Appenteng, “You gotta do better.” He then quickly said, “I’m sorry for saying that,” clamping a hand over his mouth.

Another sharp exchange occurred shortly before the lunch break, when Appenteng asked whether it was true that McDavid had hugged a man after he returned a Kelly sex tape to him in exchange for money. “Huh? No, ma’am,” McDavid said.

“You have to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ not ‘huh.’” Appenteng said.

Toward the end of his direct examination Thursday, McDavid testified that it wasn’t until viewing evidence during the current federal trial that McDavid saw things differently.

“For the last three weeks ... I’ve learned a lot of things that I had no idea about in 2008,” McDavid said.

Asked if he wanted to believe Kelly’s claims that his accusers were all liars, McDavid said, “I absolutely did.” When asked why, his voice started to break.

“Because I loved him and I believed in him,” McDavid said. “As I stand here today, I’m embarrassed, sad — ”

His answer was cut off by loud objections from Kelly’s attorney as well as prosecutors.

On cross-examination Friday, prosecutors asserted McDavid would long ago have been aware of the accusations made by two witnesses who testified at this trial. The two, identified only as Tracy and Nia, made claims that Kelly’s team settled long before this trial. McDavid was even named in a suit filed by Nia, though McDavid said he had no memory of that.

Earlier in the trial, jurors had seen excerpts of three videos purporting to show Kelly having sexual contact with his underage goddaughter, Jane. Defense attorneys have not directly challenged the fact that Kelly and Jane are depicted on the sexually explicit footage.

And prosecutors presented extensive testimony from Jane that Kelly had sexual contact with her “innumerable” times beginning when she was just 14, then pressured her to lie about it.


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