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20 months since R. Kelly charged in child porn case — no trial date yet

R. Kelly listen as Judge Karla Wright decides on $750,000 bail at the Polk County Courthouse on June 6, 2002 in Bartow, Florida. Kelly waived extradition and was sent back to Illinois. (Photo by George McGinn/Getty Images)

Twenty months after prosecutors announced they had the evidence to convict R&B superstar R. Kelly on child pornography charges, no trial date has been set.

Every month Kelly reports to Cook County Criminal Court where prosecutors turn over more evidence to Kelly’s lawyers; Kelly asks permission to travel the country promoting his new albums; and Judge Vince Gaughan asks both sides when they’ll be ready to set a trial date.

Rapper P. Diddy got to trial on murder charges in New York in 12 months. Martha Stewart started her trial in January just seven months after being charged with securities fraud. O.J. Simpson’s trial started three months after he was charged.

Only gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg seems to have taken longer to get to trial in a survey of recent celebrity trials. He waited 23 months.

Like Kelly, the notoriety of the charges against Dogg–in his case accessory to murder–did not stop him from producing albums that topped the charts as he awaited trial. Kelly’s “Chocolate Factory” album has sold more than two million copies and is a finalist for the NAACP’s Image Awards next month.

In addition to the 21 counts of child pornography Kelly faces in Chicago, he faces 12 counts in Florida for images police found on a digital camera. That case had been on hold pending the outcome of the Chicago case, but prosecutors there got tired of waiting for the Chicago case to start.

A Florida judge will hear Kelly’s motion to exclude the pictures from evidence Thursday.

Neither Cook County prosectors nor Kelly’s attorneys are bothered by the pace of the “discovery” leading up to Kelly’s trial.

They both have experts extensively researching the 29-minute videotape that is at the heart of the case and appears to show Kelly engaging in various sex acts with a 14-year-old girl.

After more than a year of research, prosecutors finished turning over evidence to Kelly’s lawyer, Ed Genson, two months ago, putting the ball in his court. Now Gaughan likely will be asking Genson how soon he’ll be ready to set a trial date.

Sources say Gaughan could set the trial for April, now that Genson client Larry Warner’s federal trial has been postponed. Neither side wants a summer trial, where Kelly’s fans might once again rent a school bus to bring 40 kids on a “field trip” to serenade Kelly on his way into and out of court, as they did in August 2002.

The crowds of fans and foes that used to gather and shout at Kelly have thinned in the last 20 months.

Some of them trade rumors that no trial date has been set yet because the case against Kelly is falling apart; that both sides are trying to cut a plea bargain; that State’s Attorney Dick Devine wanted the trial after the March primary election to prevent a backlash among black voters.

Lawyers on both sides laugh off the rumors.

“We have a strong case and we’re proceeding to trial as expeditiously as we can,” said Devine spokesman John Gorman, pointing out the office convicted cop-killer James Scott on Wednesday, five years after he was charged.

Finding a case to compare with Kelly’s is difficult.

Former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds was charged in 1994 with having sex with an underage campaign worker. He went to trial in 11 months. The alleged victim took the stand and recanted her earlier testimony that she and Reynolds had sex. Prosecutors took the unusual step of jailing her until she went back to her original story. Reynolds was convicted.

Genson has charged from the start that Kelly was singled out for special treatment because of his celebrity. Devine has said Kelly is being treated like any other defendant. Prosecutor Ellen Mandeltort has retained the case even as she moved from Devine’s office to the state attorney general’s office.

She and Genson faced off in the case of Frank Caruso, a white teen charged with beating black youth Lenard Clark into a coma. Mandeltort won a conviction against Caruso on some of the charges, but Genson got some dropped. Genson and Mandeltort know each other’s idiosyncrasies and trade playful barbs during pretrial motions.

Despite having the tape, prosecutors won’t have a slam-dunk case. Unlike Reynolds’ alleged victim, Kelly’s reportedly has maintained all along she’s not the girl on the tape. So prosecutors will have to rely on her neighbors, family members and other acquaintances to testify that she is the girl on the tape and was underage at the time.

Kelly’s attorneys filed a series of motions in December hinting at defenses they may raise at trial.

Quoting a recent federal case, Kelly’s lawyers argue that “computer morphing is known to occur in child pornography cases. Rather than creating original images, pornographers can alter innocent pictures of real children so that the children appear to be engaged in sexual activity.”

A computer expert told the Chicago Sun-Times the chances the Kelly video was morphed were “slim to none–26 minutes of putting someone else’s head on someone’s body, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of hours of frame-by-frame manipulation to make that work.”