R. Kelly defense team aims to undermine accusers’ credibility as first week of trial unfolds

Kelly’s supporters have characterized the accusers as unreliable groupies hoping to profit off their connection to the singer. But an aggressive attack on their credibility in front of the jury could backfire.

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In this courtroom sketch Jerhonda Pace testifies against R&B star R. Kelly during the singer’s sex abuse trial Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in New York.

In this courtroom sketch Jerhonda Pace testifies against R&B star R. Kelly during the singer’s sex abuse trial Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in New York.

AP

Federal jurors in New York have now heard a week of emotional and graphic testimony in the racketeering trial of R&B superstar R. Kelly, including from two alleged victims who are the first to ever testify against the singer in a criminal proceeding.

The jury listened to explicit allegations of sexual abuse, violence and edicts known as “Rob’s rules.” It also heard about the alleged 1994 bribery of an Illinois government worker in exchange for a fake ID so singer Aaliyah Haughton, then 15, could marry Kelly, then 27.

But in opening statements, Kelly defense attorney Nicole Blank Becker warned jurors, “don’t assume everybody’s telling the truth.” And as the trial has unfolded, Kelly’s defense team has done its best to undermine the credibility of people who have taken the stand.

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Doing so could mean striking a difficult balance when it comes to Kelly’s accusers, though. While Kelly’s lawyers and supporters have longed for the opportunity to reveal the women as unreliable groupies hoping to profit off their connection to the singer, an aggressive attack on their credibility in front of the jury could backfire.

“You can’t just get in their face and just start screaming at them,” said Terry Ekl, a veteran Chicago-area defense attorney. “The jury will start to sympathize with that person.”

Kelly, 54 and born Robert Sylvester Kelly, faces allegations that he ran an “enterprise” made up of his employees and others who helped him recruit women and girls for illegal sex, as well as to produce child pornography.

His federal trial in Brooklyn comes 13 years after a Cook County jury acquitted Kelly of child pornography charges in 2008. Jurors in that case pointed to the purported victim’s refusal to testify after finding him not guilty.

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In this courtroom artist’s sketch made from a video screen monitor of a Brooklyn courtroom, defendant R. Kelly, left, listens during the opening day of his trial, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in New York.

AP

In the Brooklyn case now underway, Jerhonda Pace last week became the first alleged victim of Kelly’s to testify against him at trial, telling jurors her sexual relationship with Kelly began in May 2009, when she was 16. She testified that when she revealed her virginity to him, Kelly said he wanted to “train her” sexually and told her to call him “Daddy.”

Pace, who appeared in the Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” faced cross examination from defense attorney Deveraux Cannick, who questioned her about her age during her relationship with Kelly, the past lies she told in order to attend Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial, and about whether she had once burglarized Kelly’s home.

“You wrote a book, am I correct?” Cannick also asked.

“Yes, I did,” Pace replied.

“And any compensation for the book?” Cannick asked next.

Pace acknowledged she made money from the book, which she self-published.

Crucial testimony also came from former Kelly tour manager Demetrius Smith, who testified under an immunity order and made clear he didn’t want to participate in the trial. He told jurors he paid the $500 bribe to secure a fake ID for Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001.

The feds say Kelly married Aaliyah to prevent her from testifying against him after he came to believe she had gotten pregnant.

On cross examination, Cannick asked Smith, “Now, Robert never had anything to do with you bribing anyone to get a marriage license, am I correct?”

“No, he didn’t,” Smith said.

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez had a chance to ask follow-up questions, she asked whether Kelly was present for a discussion about the bribe.

“I’m pretty sure,” Smith said. “I think so but I’m not, I’m just not positive. Even if I said it before, I’m just not positive. I just don’t see that in my head right now.” He later added, “I don’t remember if Robert was there.”

Smith also insisted that, “Aaliyah should be left alone. I shouldn’t be talking about Aaliyah.”

A second accuser took the stand this week, and more are expected to follow. To effectively cross-examine such witnesses, Ekl said defense attorneys hope to show bias. It helps when attorneys are able to point out testimony from a witness that contradicts previous comments, or even to a past admission of bias made to another witness.

But corroborating evidence can be used by prosecutors to support the testimony of an otherwise flawed witness. And now, 13 years after a purported victim’s refusal to testify led to Kelly’s acquittal, the multiple accusers in the Brooklyn racketeering case may wind up corroborating each other through similarities in their testimony.

“That becomes powerful evidence,” Ekl said.

Contributing: Associated Press

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