Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times on June 14, 2008.
R. Kelly famously sang “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Friday afternoon, he broke down in tears as a Cook County jury let him walk.
In a dramatic verdict that appeared to stun even his own highly paid lawyers, the 41-year-old R&B star was cleared of all 14 counts of child pornography.
“Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus,” Kelly whispered as each not guilty verdict was read.
Now free to pursue his Grammy award-winning career, Kelly had faced up to 15 years behind bars if convicted.
Six years after he was charged with videotaping himself while he allegedly had sex with — and urinated on — his underage goddaughter at his former North Side home, a jury took a little more than seven hours over two days to acquit him.
Fifteen witnesses identified the alleged victim as the girl on the notorious 27-minute sex tape, and a dozen identified Kelly as the man, but the jury said they could not be sure.
The refusal of the alleged victim to testify for the state was key in their decision, jurors said. She was just 13 or 14 when the tape allegedly was made sometime between 1998 and 2000.
The relatively short deliberations after four weeks of testimony led many to think Kelly would be convicted. Moments before the verdict was announced, the star’s downcast attorney Sam Adam Jr. turned to Kelly, shaking his hand and somberly telling him, “We did everything we could.”
But an overcome Kelly dropped his head and began sobbing as the first “not guilty” was read shortly after 2 p.m. Friday, keeping it bowed for several minutes as he was cleared on each of the counts.
Sitting next to him, Adam exclaimed, “Yes!” dropping his jaw in shock and hugging Kelly, who dabbed the tears streaming down his face with a baby blue handkerchief.
Minutes later, Kelly walked out of the courthouse a free man, striding past TV and press cameras and into a jubilant crowd of 75 supporters, before speeding away in a chauffeured SUV.
“I love him!” one woman shouted. “I love him!”
Kelly did not comment, but a Kelly spokesman said the singer wanted to thank his fans “who stuck by him and supported him with such love.
“And most of all, he wants to thank God for giving him the strength to get through this.”
Jurors, who began their deliberations Thursday afternoon, said that though most of them believed Kelly was the man on the tape, it was harder to positively identify the girl.
At one point, as many as five of the 12 jurors had wanted to convict Kelly, they revealed at a press conference.
Kelly’s attorneys had alleged that the star was framed by his former protege, singer Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, the alleged victim’s aunt. Sparkle and part of the victim’s family had teamed up with two Kansas City men to fake the sex tape, Kelly’s team alleged, saying Sparkle wanted “money, money, money.”
Neither Kelly nor the alleged victim were on the tape, they contended, claiming that a mole on Kelly’s back did not appear on the man in the tape.
One juror, a woman in her 20s who is studying law enforcement, said, “Neither side proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, but that’s why we had to go for not guilty.”
A series of rulings by Judge Vincent Gaughan meant that the jury did not learn of Kelly’s history with younger women.
That hidden background included Kelly’s secret marriage to the late R&B star Aaliyah when she was just 15, and his decision to settle lawsuits brought by three other underage girls.
At least one juror, a compliance officer who works with a downtown investment firm, said it might have been harder to acquit Kelly had he known about the star’s past. “I would have had to work harder” to vote for an acquittal, the man said.
A sullen Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine told reporters after the verdict that he has “no reservations” about his office having brought the Kelly case to trial.
“If we receive similar evidence today or tomorrow, we will bring that case,” Devine said.
The case began in 2002 when Chicago Sun-Times reporter and music critic Jim DeRogatis, who was sent the sex tape by an anonymous tipster, passed it on to police.
But Shauna Boliker, lead prosecutor on the case, said the lack of a witness willing to testify “absolutely did play a part” in the outcome.
“If we do anything with this prosecution, it shows the world how difficult this crime is to prosecute,” Boliker said.
As word of Kelly’s acquittal spread across the courthouse corridors and into the Cook County Jail next door, some lawyers, sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers celebrated loudly.
One courthouse veteran said he was looking forward to quieter days at 26th and California.
“Things will get back to normal around now,” said Ralph Ferro, a court clerk for 29 years. “The walls won’t be cleaned for 10 years, the floors will be dirty again — and I get my parking spot back.”