Strong allegations of sexual misconduct have followed R. Kelly for 25 years, but the singer has always managed to slip free. Yet reports that a videotape of him sexually assaulting an underage girl, combined with the outcry surrounding the Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” means that public sentiment, at the very least, is definitely not in the singer’s favor this time — especially if the descriptions of the tape, which is reported to feature multiple graphic elements that were reported regarding other women in “Surviving R. Kelly,” are proven to be accurate. Multiple reports say that Kelly’s arrest could be imminent.
Criminal defense attorney Anthony Salerno, who has handled numerous sex-crime cases over the past 25 years, reviewed the information presented in the two articles on the matter (from The New Yorker and CNN) and tells Variety:
“R. Kelly is in big trouble — if [certain aspects can be proved],” he begins. “One, if the girl in the video really was [underage]. Two, if it’s clear that the people in the video are who they seem to be. Three, if they can find the girl and get her to talk. Four, if the date of the video can be confirmed, which would involve the statute of limitations. And five, if the location where the video was filmed can be confirmed.”
In 2002, Kelly was arrested after a similar tape emerged and public outcry was fierce. Yet his attorneys managed to delay the case for some six years; during that time he continued to tour and record and charmed listeners with his comic “Lost in the Closet” songs and video. Public attention wandered, the girl in the video declined to testify against him, and he was acquitted in 2008.
Yet public opinion began to turn with a 2013 interview with Jim DeRogatis — the former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who broke the story of the first sex tape and has followed Kelly allegations closely for 20 years — that brought renewed attention to the allegations, spiked again last summer when DeRogatis reported that Kelly was holding several young women in a “sex cult,” and reached a new peak after “Surviving R. Kelly” aired in January. (Kelly has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, an assertion repeated by his attorney, Steve Greenberg, on Thursday in a statement mocking reports of the new video.)
If Kelly is arrested and tried, public attention is not likely to wander this time, although much will depend on whether the girl in the video can be identified and convinced to testify — or, as was the case last time, she chooses not to testify.
“That may be his best play,” Salerno says, adding, “and in saying that, I want to be clear that paying the girl” — as some reports allege Kelly has done in the past — “or by any means asking her to not cooperate would be illegal and I would not advocate it, nor would any ethical attorney. [Even if she declines], the girl could be forced to testify on pain of contempt, but if there’s a pretty clear-cut video, they may even be able to do it without her cooperation. And if she talked about the incident with other people, they could be called, under certain exceptions, to the hearsay rule.”
Asked what sort of sentence Kelly could be looking at, Salerno says, “Lots of factors can affect sentencing but based on Illinois law, probably up to 15 years — and if they add in child pornography production, even more. That could also lead the feds to get involved as well, which could mean an even longer term.”
In a related development, attorney Gloria Allred told the Associated Press that she believes the girl in the video “may” be one of the Kelly accusers she recently began representing. “I’ve made law enforcement in a different jurisdiction [other than Chicago] aware of my concerns that it may, in fact, be my client and I want to protect her privacy,” she said; Greenberg called her comments “speculative.”
Allegations of sexually abusive behavior by Kelly toward young women date back more than 20 years. In 1995, when he was 27, he briefly married the late singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time (in “Surviving R. Kelly” an executive who formerly worked with the singer says he forged Aaliyah’s birth date on the marriage license to say she was 18, and another witness says she saw Kelly and Aaliyah having sex). Just last year, reports of Kelly essentially holding women captive in a “sex cult” were published. Multiple other reports have surfaced over the years.
Last month Kelly’s longtime label, Sony Music subsidiary RCA Records, parted company with the singer.