CHICAGO — The video of R. Kelly sexually abusing his teenage goddaughter, “Jane,” has haunted her for more than two decades, robbing her of her childhood, of her dreams of being a musician, of any chance she ever had at normalcy.
“Every time I walk into a room, it feels like the child pornography tapes arrive a couple minutes before I do. I am rarely seen,” Jane wrote in a statement that was read aloud in a hushed federal courtroom on Thursday. “My teenage years and adulthood have been built through the lens of a pedophile.”
The statement, along with ones read by two other women who were victimized by Kelly as teens, punctuated a dramatic sentencing hearing that was essentially 21 years in the making, beginning when Kelly was charged with child pornography in Cook County in 2002, only to later be acquitted.
In the end, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber rendered what amounted to a split decision: handing the Chicago-born Kelly a 20-year prison term for his conviction last year on charges of child pornography and sexual conduct with minors, but ordering that only one year will be served consecutive to his 30-year sentence in New York.
In rejecting a request from prosecutors for a lengthy additional sentence that essentially would have ensured Kelly died in prison, Leinenweber noted that while Kelly’s crimes were “horrific,” he will be around 80 years old when he is released — if he even survives his sentence.
Leinenweber, who is 85, said it’s highly unlikely Kelly would offend again.
“He was grooming young girls when he was in his 20s, he was a millionaire and he was a superstar,” Leinenweber said. “… Few girls would be susceptible to his charms as an 80-year-old with no money and no prospects. Eighty-year-olds are more interested in — not in grooming young women, but probably on their prostate and their arthritis and all the other factors that go into the aging process.”
Kelly, 56, was convicted in September of child pornography for making explicit videos of himself and his then-teenage goddaughter, who testified at trial under the pseudonym Jane. He also was convicted of inappropriate sexual relations with Jane and two other teenage girls, “Pauline” and “Nia.”
He was acquitted, however, of explosive allegations that he and others conspired to rig his initial Cook County trial in 2008.
The highly anticipated sentencing hearing drew national media attention and a crowd of supporters to Leinenweber’s packed courtroom, where Kelly, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and wearing black eyeglasses, remained seated at the defense table for the entirety of the two-hour proceeding.
Kelly showed no reaction to Leinenweber’s sentence. Earlier, as victims read statements to the court, he stared straight ahead with a deep frown on his face and did not look in their direction as they walked past his table.
As Kelly was being led away after the hearing, several supporters in the gallery shouted to him, including one woman who yelled, “We love you, Rob! Keep your head up.”
Arguing for a heavy sentence, prosecutors said that the matter should be considered separate and above the New York conviction, to provide some closure to the set of victims who testified in Chicago.
“(Kelly) for decades has been sexually abusing girls intentionally and with willful disregard, meaning he knew what he was doing was wrong and criminal and he did it anyway,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannice Appenteng said in arguing for a consecutive sentence.
Kelly’s attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, accused prosecutors of “overkill,” saying the government’s request was symbolic and that they wanted to punish Kelly more severely “because he’s R. Kelly.”
“(Prosecutors are) really asking for a second life sentence. And it’s unclear why. He only has one life to give,” she said.
Bonjean also pushed back at allegations Kelly does not feel remorse, noting that he wanted to speak on his own behalf but would not do so on her advice, given his appeal and another pending indictment in Minnesota.
When the judge asked Kelly directly if he wanted to speak, Kelly answered, “Sorry, your honor, but on the advice of my counsel, I do not.”
Kelly also opted not to address the judge at his sentencing in New York last year, and he did not testify in either trial.
In the end, Leinenweber sided mostly with the defense, effectively extending the time Kelly will serve behind bars by just a year.
“No matter what I do, Mr. Kelly is not going out the door after today,” Leinenweber said. “He’s not going out the door in 10 years. He’s not going out the door in the next 20 years.”
Speaking after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney John Lausch said his office was “absolutely” disappointed there wasn’t more of a consecutive sentence for Kelly, but that either way, “20 years is a significant sentence” that will ensure he’s not back out on the street even if his New York case is thrown out.
Lausch also defended the separate charges in different districts, saying there was “distinct conduct … involving different victims” in each. He also said “one of the reasons this was such an important case to bring here in Chicago was the abuse of Jane.”
In addition to Jane’s statement, which was read in court by her attorney, Pauline and Nia appeared in person to read statements of their own, tearfully recounting the effects of Kelly’s abuse.
Nia testified at trial last year that Kelly lured her to a concert in Minnesota when she was a teenager in 1996, and later kissed her and groped her under her pants during a visit to his Chicago studio.
“Robert, for years you made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Now you are here in this courtroom in front of this judge because there is something wrong with you,” Nia said through sobs. “No longer will you be able to harm anyone’s children.”
Pauline, who was best friends with Jane as a teen, told jurors she had sexual contact with Kelly dozens if not hundreds of times when she was underage.
In court Thursday, she said she’s spent years in therapy and grappled with thoughts of suicide before deciding she would “no longer play victim.” She now has a family of her own, but her trauma is evident in other aspects of her life, like not letting her kids stay over at friends’ houses, she said.
“I don’t trust anyone with my children,” she said in a quiet, steady voice. “Because I know first-hand where that can go.”
In her statement, Jane, now 38, called for Kelly to be in prison “for the balance of his natural born life.”
“When your virginity is taken by a pedophile at the age of 14 and you live for him, your life is never your own,” the statement read.
“I will never be able to unsee, unthink or be unaffected by the child pornography I was enticed to engage in,” Jane wrote. “I thought Robert loved me. To do the things he did, he in fact loathed me.”
As a young teenager, Jane wanted nothing more than a career in music, she wrote, and she was hopeful that Kelly would help make that dream come true.
Instead, he lured her into sex, and warped her view of the world forever, she wrote.
“I never thought that my first love, music, would lead to the darkness I experienced for over a decade,” she wrote. “I loved music, but by the time I was 16, 17 years of age, the only thing that mattered was him. … Independence didn’t seem like an option. Robert shattered me.”
In arguing for a more lenient sentence, Bonjean noted that Kelly’s life has also been shaped by childhood sexual abuse.
“Mr. Kelly’s childhood, (prosecutors) can say he should have overcome it, but according to their own witnesses, it’s impossible to overcome — except when it’s Mr. Kelly,” she said.
Prosecutors are unfairly singling Kelly out to make him an example of a much wider issue, she argued.
“Why? Because he’s R. Kelly,” she said. “… This is still an individual, and a sentence needs to be appropriate for this individual taking in his individual characteristics.”
In remarks to reporters after court, Bonjean said prosecutors have “almost an unhealthy fixation” with the singer.
“If you really care about child exploitation, if you really care, now is the time to turn your attention to other people,” she said in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. “And Mr. Kelly has been sufficiently punished.”
In a blow to prosecutors, Leinenweber declined to order Kelly to pay any restitution, except for $42,000 to Pauline for reimbursement of therapy bills. The other women did not show proof of specific costs they had incurred, and they would be better off filing a civil suit to seek damages, the judge said.
Besides, Leinenweber noted, the possibility that Kelly will ever actually be able to pay restitution is extremely remote. Kelly owes the IRS an eye-popping $10 million, Leinenweber said, and it is unclear whether he has any sources of income at all.
Kelly’s five-week federal trial in Chicago featured some 34 witnesses. The jury was shown clips from three separate videos made in the 1990s allegedly depicting Kelly abusing Jane, including the same tape from his Cook County trial as well as another where he instructed her to refer repeatedly to her “14-year-old” genitalia.
Jane testified for the first time at trial that not only was it her on the videotapes, but that Kelly had sexually abused her “innumerable” times when she was a minor, at his recording studio, his home, on tour buses and in hotel rooms.
Asked on the witness stand why, after two decades of silence, she finally decided to come forward and speak out, Jane said: “I became exhausted with living with (Kelly’s) lies.”
The jury’s split verdict came 14 years after Kelly’s infamous acquittal on similar charges in Cook County, which were based on a single video of Kelly allegedly abusing Jane in the hot tub room of his former home on West George Street. Jane had refused to cooperate in that case.
Kelly was also found guilty on three out of five counts related to enticement of a minor involving Jane, Pauline and Nia.
But in a rare loss for federal prosecutors, the jury acquitted Kelly and two co-defendants on charges they conspired to retrieve incriminating tapes and rig his 2008 trial by pressuring Jane to lie to investigators about their relationship and refuse to testify against him.
Kelly was also found not guilty of filming himself with Jane on a video that jurors never saw. Prosecutors said “Video 4″ was not played because Kelly’s team successfully buried it, but defense attorneys questioned whether it existed at all.
Thursday’s sentencing effectively marks the end of a trio of prosecutions that came on the heels of the “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries that aired on Lifetime in 2019, at the height of the #MeToo movement.
Kelly was sentenced to 30 years after a jury in New York found him guilty in 2021 of racketeering conspiracy charges alleging his musical career doubled as a criminal enterprise aimed at satisfying his predatory sexual desires.
Bonjean’s appellate brief in that case is due next month in federal court in Brooklyn. She’s also planning to appeal his conviction in Chicago to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Last month, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced she was dropping four separate Cook County indictments against Kelly, in part to conserve resources given his two federal convictions.