What we were not allowed to see at the R. Kelly trial


U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly has ruled to keep the media out of the courtroom less than a month before the trial begins on August 18. Due to the pandemic, she said, jurors had to be seated in the courtroom gallery due to social distancing recommendations and that it would be “inappropriate” to sit members of the press. with them.

Despite her concerns about the pandemic, she has not demanded that jurors be vaccinated, which her colleague, U.S. District Judge William Kuntz, has demanded of jurors in a trial he is overseeing and who is also in course in the same courthouse. Judges are responsible for their own courtrooms and it is not uncommon for the rules to differ from courtroom to courtroom.

Donnelly’s decision created obstacles for reporters covering the trial. They couldn’t see important evidence or see how jurors reacted to testimony, among other issues.

And reporters were unable to voice their concerns in real time as they were placed in a two-story courtroom from where Kelly’s trial was taking place.

Even during the trial of Mexican cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, held in the same courthouse in 2019, the jurors and their reactions could be seen by the public, including the press. Guzman was ultimately convicted of all 10 federal charges against him, including racketeering, and spent the rest of his life in prison.

Roger Canaff, a former prosecutor who focused on cases involving sexual abuse, said in his 25 years of practice he had never seen a jury completely blocked from public view.

“The right to a speedy and public trial is fundamental in the United States and the criminal justice process must not be hindered,” Canaff told CNN. “Even in high profile and emotional cases it is unusual for a judge to prevent the jury from being seen at all.”

Kelly was convicted of nine counts, including racketeering and sex trafficking on Monday. He pleaded not guilty to all counts and did not testify in his own defense. CNN has reached out to Kelly’s legal team for comment.

The jury

Kelly, her legal team and prosecutors showed up in Donnelly’s courtroom each day of the trial with the jury. But journalists and the public who wished to attend the proceedings were directed to two different courtrooms on a different floor.

The proceedings were barely visible on two flat screens which displayed security camera feeds showing a wide shot of the courtrooms. The witnesses’ faces appeared to be about the size of a quarter. It was difficult to say whether the witnesses had become moved on the stand. The evidence appeared in a black box on the screen that was too small to read.

All 12 jurors and six alternates briefly appeared at the bottom of the screens as they entered and exited the courtroom. But they were cut off from public view, so their reactions to the evidence or testimony could not be seen. This is something that Bernarda Villalona, ​​a criminal defense attorney who came to watch Kelly’s trial as a spectator, said it was a way of judging what jurors thought about the case.

“I look at the facial expressions. Especially when there are vital witnesses, victims testifying,” Villalona told CNN. “It is very revealing to us of their position in this matter.”

Only for the jury

Journalists and the public were unable to raise their objections to the judge as prosecutors began showing key audio and video evidence to jurors wearing headphones.

The tapes, which Donnelly described in court as “a little upsetting”, were shown to jurors on September 15. The public could not see the jurors’ reactions to them and did not know what was in them, except for two recordings discussed in a September 14 file. prosecutors.

According to the court file, a video recording showed Kelly entering a room with two women and accusing one of the women of lying. Prosecutors say he “can then be heard to start physically assaulting the woman.”

In another recording, which prosecutors described as an hour-long audio file, Kelly confronted an anonymous woman for stealing a watch and “berated, threatened and physically assaulted” her. Prosecutors said he also told the woman that people were being “murdered” for doing what she had done. These types of threats were at the heart of prosecutors’ arguments that Kelly used coercion to control his victims.

Charges against R. Kelly in federal racketeering lawsuit explained

More than a dozen media organizations covering the trial joined together to request Donnelly by letter for access to the tapes, which were unsealed. CNN was one of the media that participated in the lawsuit.

“Because the documents were not sealed when they were presented to the jury, news organizations now have an immediate right to access and make copies of the video and audio evidence,” the letter said.

The letter said that if the judge did not grant access to the tapes, then media organizations wanted the opportunity to take the case to court. The letter also asked the court to consider removing any sensitive documents to allow public disclosure of such evidence.

On September 21, Donnelly addressed the tapes in court, saying the media should not be allowed to view them, in part because of their graphic nature.

“It’s extremely graphic. It would be embarrassing, to put it mildly. It would cause humiliation and create all kinds of other consequences (for people in it),” Donnelly said in court.

Donnelly ruled that the media could listen to audio redacted versions of some of the recordings.

Shortly after this story was published (and due to the media letter to the court), prosecutors allowed reporters to listen to audio-only versions of some of the evidence.

The files included recordings of Kelly threatening women and evidence of women filming humiliating acts, but many were indistinguishable as they contained no dialogue. Donnelly also allowed several members of the media, including CNN, to enter the courtroom for the first time since the trial began to watch the jury deliver the guilty verdict.

For weeks, witnesses have testified to a culture of threats and coercion while spending time with Kelly, and yet the public still haven’t had a chance to see any evidence of these threats, which Villalona has declared to be an important part of the justice system.

“When you talk about the criminal justice system, members of the public have to be a part of the trial – they have to be able to see it. Transparency has to exist for there to be any confidence in the criminal justice system,” Villalona said.

It wasn’t until the government made its final findings last week that the public finally learned more about the content of the tapes. In one, said deputy US lawyer Elizabeth Geddes, Kelly asked a woman to undress, who told her, “Four licks (spanking),” confirming the woman’s testimony in court.

“In the video, you saw the accused spank (her) four times, and you saw the absolute anguish on (her) face as he spanked her,” Geddes said.

Another video clip, Geddes said, showed a woman led by Kelly as “sexual and alluring with bodily fluids, feces, urine.”

During her final argument, Geddes told jurors she would not replay the clip because they might “never completely erase that searing image” from their memories.

Correction: An image caption on a previous version of this story used the incorrect title for Nadia Shihata. She is an assistant to the American prosecutor.

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