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R. Kelly Is Facing ’a Minimum of 15 Years’ in Prison on New Charges, Legal Expert Says

On the basis of the new charges filed against R. Kelly this week, all of them stemming from longstanding claims of sexual misconduct or abuse, the singer could be looking at a minimum of 15 years in prison if he is found guilty, says attorney Priya Sopori, a partner at Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP in Los Angeles, with many years of experience in cases involving crimes against children.

Of the two indictments unsealed earlier today, the Illinois one lists five unnamed female minors who met Kelly in the 1990s, four of whom appeared in videos in which they had sexual contact or engaged in sex acts with the singer. (Kelly has maintained his innocence in these and all previous charges.)

While Kelly has been accused of sexual misconduct for many years — and was acquitted of child-pornography charges in 2008 — the new charges are federal, and “are considerably more serious than the original state court charges [of which he was acquitted in 2008]. Anyone charged with these crimes is facing considerably more prison time than he otherwise would have,” Sopori explained to Variety.

“Earlier, he was looking at possession of child pornography under state jurisdiction,” she explains. “Now, he’s looking at production of child pornography, which is a federal crime in federal court, and there’s a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison for that crime. So if he’s found guilty of production of child pornography, no judge will have discretion to send him to prison for fewer than 15 years — remember, in federal court, defendants end up serving a very large percentage of their time because there is no early-parole system.”

One striking factor of the New York indictment is the emphasis on racketeering charges, which are commonly associated with organized crime. However, the crimes of which Kelly is accused involve a different type of criminal enterprise.

“Most of the time, when the general public thinks of racketeering, we think of crimes perpetrated by criminal organizations like the Mafia,” Sopori says. “But the goal of a criminal enterprise doesn’t have to be profit — here you have an entirely different set of alleged goals. In layman’s terms this alleged criminal enterprise seems to have been procuring, taking care of, and then paying off various victims on [Kelly’s] behalf and making sure these girls don’t speak about what’s happened to them — it’s not about making money. It’s not usually what we think of as a goal of criminal enterprise, that’s why it might feel like it’s about a commercial activity when it actually isn’t.”

And while the indictment alleges that large amounts of cash were provided by Kelly’s associates to alleged victims’ and/or their families in exchange for their silence, and such activity is illegal, Sopori speculates that those families may have struck a deal with the government in exchange for their testimony.

“I would expect to see cooperating witnesses that we didn’t see before: witnesses who were close to Kelly who may be planning to testify against him, family members of alleged victims who allegedly received money may be testifying against him, and — we have no evidence, this is pure speculation on my part based on my experience — I would expect to see that kind of testimony from cooperating witnesses that we didn’t see before,” she says. “Now, is it a crime to receive what amounts to a bribe? Yes, absolutely. On the other hand, I would expect that in this case the people who accepted the bribes to be testifying against Kelly and would have some cooperation deal with the government, or at least the expectation of a cooperation deal with the government.”

And although the alleged victim at the center of the original child-pornography case declined to testify, Sopori notes that with sufficient corroborating evidence, the victim’s testimony is not essential.

“When you bring a federal criminal case you’re bringing it on behalf of the United States of America — not the victim,” she notes. “You often will have young victims of prostitution who are unwilling to testify against their pimp — but that doesn’t stop the charges from begin brought and convictions from being had. It’s very possible that victims may be defending R. Kelly, but that’s not crucial to the success of the case, and on the basis of the details of the indictments, it looks like they’ve shored up a considerable amount of evidence” against Kelly.

While the charges are certainly more damning than the ones assembled against the singer in the past, Sopori agrees that the change in the cultural climate in the decade since Kelly was acquitted could have an effect on the outcome as well.

“I think juries for the most part in criminal cases take their obligation [to be unbiased] very seriously,” she says, “but on the other hand we do have a climate change that has affected the way the general public and members of the jury think of and receive victims of sexual misconduct and abuse. And I think there’s a greater understanding now of the kinds of hurdles victims face.”

She also notes that the public sympathy for Kelly on the basis of his music, which many feel was a factor in his continued popularity until recent years, may be long gone.

“There’s only so much protection society and culture’s admiration for his creative accomplishments will provide,” she concludes, “and culture may be no longer willing to overlook what he’s allegedly done.”

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