R. Kelly trial: A singer who sexually abused children? Or a celebrity tarred by liars and extortionists?

Opening statements in Kelly’s trial Wednesday hinted at what is likely to be a hard-fought, Chicago-style legal brawl set to play out on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the Loop.

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R. Kelly walks out of the Daley Center after a hearing in a child support case in March 2019.

In this file photo, R. Kelly walks out of the Daley Center after a hearing in a child support case in March 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The sensational, sordid and clandestine world R&B superstar R. Kelly inhabited as sexual abuse allegations emerged against him in the early 2000s began to come into view for a federal jury as Kelly’s latest trial got underway Wednesday in Chicago.

Jurors heard the feds accuse the Grammy winner of videotaping himself having sex with children and hiding his “dark side” from the world. When police began to investigate, prosecutors said Kelly conspired with two workers to hunt videos down before they were leaked to the public and hid a teenage victim in hotels and foreign countries.

The feds warned jurors they would have to view graphic child pornography, allegedly of Kelly and the central sexual abuse victim he tried to secret away. They could hear from a total of five women allegedly abused by Kelly when they were teens. But first, jurors saw a video of Kelly’s public side, as he performed the opening bars of his inspirational anthem “I Believe I Can Fly.”

“Kelly had another side,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Julien said during his opening statement. “A hidden side. A dark side.”

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Jurors also heard from defense attorneys, though, who painted government witnesses as liars and extortionists. They described an environment in which women falsely leveled accusations against Kelly for cash settlements. Kelly attorney Jennifer Bonjean questioned whether that central accuser — who refused to participate in a 2008 trial over her alleged abuse by Kelly on video — would testify as the feds have promised.

“For the last 22 years, she has adamantly denied that it was her on that video,” Bonjean said.

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It all hinted at what is likely to be a hard-fought, Chicago-style legal brawl set to play out on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the Loop. Kelly listened to it all wearing a navy suit, light blue shirt and tie. When Bonjean finished her opening statement, she gave Kelly a pat on the shoulder and smiled as she whispered to her client.

Prosecutors played the “I Believe I Can Fly” video from the 1998 Grammy Awards during witness testimony from a representative of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Bonjean threw her arm over the singer’s shoulder as the video played. In the small portion of the courtroom gallery reserved for the public, a few supporters could be seen bobbing their heads to the beat.

The feds likely played the video to establish the power and influence Kelly wielded in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, he is serving a 30-year federal prison sentence for his racketeering conviction last year in New York. In his new trial, he faces charges alleging child pornography, obstruction of justice and the enticement of minors into criminal sexual activity. 

Former Kelly manager Derrel McDavid is charged along with Kelly with conspiring to rig that earlier 2008 trial, which revolved around the alleged video of Kelly and the teenage girl referred to in court Wednesday as Jane. The 2008 trial ended in Kelly’s acquittal. 

Prosecutors said Jane, now 37, is expected to testify and explain that she and her family were intimidated by Kelly into denying he sexually abused her when the matter was first investigated more than 20 years ago. Julien said Wednesday that her father wound up relying on money he made as a session guitarist on Kelly’s albums.

Bonjean scoffed at the notion of a “two-decade long obstruction conspiracy.”

“This was a relationship with the entire family that lasted a long time,” Bonjean said. “The question is, why is Jane coming forward now? Only Jane can answer that.”

Julien acknowledged to jurors that, even though four videos allegedly depicting Kelly and Jane are at issue in this trial, they will only see three of them. Bonjean seized on that, insisting the fourth video “doesn’t exist and it never existed.” 

Kelly’s latest trial will continue to take jurors back to that 2008 prosecution. McDavid’s lawyer, Vadim Glozman, even made reference Wednesday to a famous defense from the 2008 trial, when lawyers argued that Kelly had a mole on his back, while the man on the central video had no mole.

Jurors also heard how that videotape was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times and turned over to Chicago police. Glozman said onetime Kelly manager Barry Hankerson made a threatening phone call to Kelly’s assistant on Feb. 4, 2002, to warn that a tape would soon go public. The same day, Glozman said, the Sun-Times called about a tape of Kelly and a minor.

The defense attorney argued that McDavid hired top professionals to defend Kelly back then, and they led him to believe the claims against Kelly were false. Glozman said McDavid intends to testify.

“This group of professionals simply did their jobs,” Glozman said. “Derrel McDavid did his job. That’s what the evidence is going to show.”

Throughout his commentary, Glozman seemed to keep Kelly at arms length. But Bonjean still accused him of finger-pointing as she later made a bid for a mistrial. U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber quickly shot her down.

Also on trial is a former assistant of Kelly’s, Milton “June” Brown. His attorney, Kathleen Leon, told the jury her client simply did his job in a “carefully siloed” environment Kelly designed. She said, “the government’s case against Milton Brown depends entirely on the benefit of hindsight.”

Meanwhile, Bonjean and Glozman pilloried prosecution witnesses Charles Freeman, Keith Murrell and Lisa Van Allen. During the 2008 trial, Van Allen said she met Kelly at a video shoot near Atlanta when she was 17. She said the pair talked for a while and then had intercourse.

On Wednesday, Julien told jurors that Van Allen was actually 18 when she met Kelly in 1998, and “she had just crossed the age threshold.”

Van Allen is expected to tell jurors that, after having recorded sexual intercourse with Kelly and sometimes Jane, Van Allen took a tape that contained three of the video clips now at issue in the current trial, handing it off to Murrell, a friend of hers.

A hunt for those video clips later ensued — involving six-figure payoffs, polygraph tests and Freeman, who was enlisted by Kelly’s team to help with the search. That is now part of the alleged obstruction-of-justice conspiracy alleged against Kelly and McDavid.

Bonjean and Glozman accused Van Allen, Freeman and Murrell of being liars now testifying in exchange for immunity deals.

“They’re criminals,” Bonjean said. “They extorted Mr. Kelly.”

Deciding the case will be a jury of five white women, three Black women, two Black men and two white men. The racial makeup of the jury changed slightly Wednesday when the judge excused a Black female juror over a medical issue. 

An alternate, a white woman, took that juror’s place.

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