CHICAGO — A dramatic legal saga that began in a Cook County courtroom 20 years ago drew to a close in a Chicago federal courtroom Thursday as disgraced R&B superstar R. Kelly was sentenced to an additional year in prison on his conviction here.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber sentenced Kelly to an additional year consecutive to his 30-year term out of federal court in New York, as well as 19 concurrent years on convictions related to child pornography and sexual conduct with minors.
Leinenweber noted that Kelly’s crimes are horrific, but he will be around 80 years old when he is released — if he survives his sentence. That makes it unlikely he would have the chance to reoffend, the judge said.
“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.”
Arguing for a heavy sentence, prosecutors noted the “absolute depravity” of preying on children to meet his sexual desires. The government had sought another 25 years tacked on to Kelly’s existing punishment.
“(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 United States Attorney Jeannice Appenteng said.
In response, Kelly attorney Jennifer Bonjean shot back against the idea that Kelly does not feel remorse, noting that he would very much like to speak on his own behalf but did not do so on her advice.
And Kelly himself suffered an extraordinarily traumatic childhood, including repeated sexual and physical abuse, Bonjean said, that “shaped his view of women, shaped his view of sex, shaped his view of the world.”
“I think you don’t need to be a Ph.D. to connect the dots here,” she said.
Kelly had faced anywhere from 10 to 90 years. The only question left was whether he got more time tacked on in a consecutive sentence that would make it a virtual certainty he would never be released.
Prosecutors alleged Kelly is a serial child sex abuser who has engaged in remorseless victim-blaming, while his attorneys have accused prosecutors of conducting a “blood-thirsty campaign to make Kelly a symbol of the #MeToo movement rather than treat him as a human being.”
Bonjean had asked Leinenweber for a concurrent sentence close to the minimum.
An attorney for the key trial witness, Kelly’s former goddaughter “Jane,” read a statement from her in court, calling 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,” attorney Christopher Brown read from Jane’s statement.
“I will never be able to unsee, unthink or be unaffected by the child pornography I was enticed to engage in,” he continued. “I thought Robert loved me. To do the things he did, he in fact loathed me.”
Two other trial witnesses, “Pauline” and “Nia,” took the stand in person and tearfully recounted the effects of Kelly’s abuse.
“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.”
Thursday’s hearing offered Kelly one last chance to address the court on his own behalf, which he did not take. Defendants appealing their convictions sometimes choose not to, though the law did not allow Leinenweber to hold it against Kelly either way.
Kelly also opted not to address the judge at his sentencing in New York, and he did not testify in either trial.
Kelly, 56, was convicted by a jury in September on charges including child pornography related to his years of sexual abuse of Jane, as well as sexual misconduct with two other girls. He was acquitted, however, of the explosive allegations that he and others conspired to rig his initial Cook County trial in 2008.
“Plain and simple, Kelly does not comprehend that what he did was wrong,” prosecutors wrote in a recent court filing, saying a consecutive sentence was necessary to “protect the community from Kelly, as he has shown no signs of rehabilitation.”
Bonjean wrote in response that Kelly was prepared to plead guilty to some of the charges on which he was eventually convicted. Prosecutors maintained that any deal had to involve the conspiracy charges too, and the dealing fell apart, Bonjean wrote.
“Kelly was willing to accept responsibility for certain conduct, but it was the government that pushed this case to a trial insisting on guilty pleas to offenses that resulted in acquittals anyway,” she wrote.
Leinenweber will also consider whether Kelly must pay as much as $13 million in restitution to the victims in the case, though he noted dryly in a recent order that given Kelly’s extensive financial obligations it’s unlikely the victims will see much money.
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, as she was known in the trial, testified for the first time 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 and two other victims who came forward to testify against him.
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.
Bonjean is appealing Kelly’s conviction and sentence in Brooklyn’s federal court, where an appellate brief is due next month. She’s also planning to appeal his conviction in Chicago to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Other than those appeals, which could take years, Kelly’s long legal road appears to be coming to an end. 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.
Kelly is also facing a charge of solicitation in Minnesota, though the case has been largely dormant while the federal cases have made their way through court.
Bonjean’s sentencing memo filed last week delved deeply into Kelly’s own traumatic childhood in Chicago, including being shot in the arm at age 14 while riding his bike, witnessing frequent domestic violence, and being repeatedly sexually abused by a sister and family friend.
“Kelly was a damaged man in his late 20s with an extraordinarily traumatic childhood that he failed to confront,” Bonjean wrote. “He lacked the insights or ability to appreciate the ways in which his traumatic childhood impacted his unhealthy sexual development and harmful choices.”
But prosecutors in their filing last week said Kelly “brazenly blames his victims” while refusing to accept responsibility for his crimes.
“At the age of 56 years old, Kelly’s lack of remorse and failure to grasp the gravity of his criminal conduct against children demonstrates that he poses a serious danger to society,” prosecutors said.