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Singer R. Kelly acquitted of child pornography charges

Stacy St. Clair
R&B star R. Kelly, 41, waves to supporters as he leaves the Cook County Criminal Courts Building after he was acquitted of child pornography charges Friday, June 13, 2008, in Chicago, Illinois. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - A Cook County jury on Friday acquitted R&B superstar R. Kelly of child pornography charges, marking the end of a high-profile trial rich in courtroom drama and celebrity intrigue.

The 41-year-old singer, whose real name is Robert Kelly, long denied charges that he videotaped himself engaging in a variety of sex acts with his then-underage goddaughter.

Authorities said the female in the video could have been as young as 13 at the time. The jury of nine men and three women deliberated for 7 ½ hours before finding Kelly not guilty on all 14 counts.

"R Kelly was found not guilty because they had the best jury that Cook County could produce," said Kelly's attorney Sam Adam Jr. "Two things happened today. R. Kelly got his name back and (his goddaughter) never had to lose hers," Adam said.

Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine called the case unusual because the alleged victim denied being the woman in the video. Sometimes, the community has to press forward with the cases, anyway, Devine said.

"If we acquire the same evidence today or tomorrow, we will bring that case," he said.

Kelly prayed in the courtroom in the moments before the verdict was announced.

As the verdicts kept coming in, each count not guilty, Adam said he heard Kelly saying "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus."

On the courthouse steps outside, Ieshi Agee, 25, stood with her three young boys to await the verdict. They cheered as Kelly walked out.

"I knew he wasn't guilty!" Agee screamed.

Kelly left the courtroom surrounded by his entourage, who kept reporters away from the singer and escorted him to a waiting sport-utility vehicle as some 50 supporters shouted support to him.

Though Kelly did not speak to reporters, he did salute and wave to fans.

Allan Mayer, a Kelly spokesman, said, "Robert has asked me to speak on his behalf for now. Robert has said all along that he believes in our system, and he believes in God. And that when all the facts came out in court, he'd be cleared of these terrible charges.

"He did not expect that it would take 6 ½ years. It's been a terrible ordeal for him and his family, and at this point all he wants to do is move forward and try to put it behind him. He wants to thank his lawyers who defended him so brilliantly. He wants to thank his fans who stuck by him and supported him with such love.

"Most of all, he wants to thank God for giving him the strength to get through this. He's going to have more to say about all of this very soon. But for right now, he'd be more inclined to be with his family, collect himself and get strong again. But we'll be hearing from him soon about all of this.

"Again, he thanks everyone for their support, and he thanks our system of justice for seeing him through. And he thanks God for his strength and his love."

The spokesman declined to take questions.

Kelly's SUV drove to Douglas Park on Chicago's West Side, where a tour bus was waiting for him and his entourage. There, Kelly, his entourage and his defense team exchanged hugs and handshakes.

Before entering the bus, Kelly shook hands with a woman who pulled up in a van and hugged several female fans, who had been screaming upon his arrival to the park.

The verdict ends a bizarre case that had languished for nearly six years. During almost four weeks of testimony, the jury heard about three-person sexual encounters and watched a sex tape in which the male participant is seen urinating on a female.

Neither the alleged victim, now 23, nor her parents testified during the trial. All three denied her involvement in the tape to a grand jury in 2002.

Without their cooperation, the prosecution used other witnesses to describe the relationship Kelly shared with his goddaughter - an aspiring rapper who witnesses said became a member of his entourage while in junior high school. She often visited him at his downtown recording studio or watched him play basketball at a Chicago gym, they testified.

Only one witness testified to having direct knowledge of an inappropriate relationship between Kelly and the alleged victim. Lisa Van Allen told the jury she engaged in a series of sexual encounters with the singer and his goddaughter when the girl was a minor.

The defense tried to undermine Van Allen's testimony by accusing her of concocting the story to extort money from Kelly. Van Allen, who lives in Georgia, called prosecutors with information about the case shortly after her fiance was arrested on guns and weapons charges.

Kelly's attorneys contended the young woman in the tape is not the alleged victim but a prostitute. They called three family members of the alleged victim who testified that they saw no resemblance between their relative and the female in the video.

Kelly also did not testify. Without testimony from him or his alleged victim, the singer's attorneys built their case around a caterpillar-shape mole along his spine. They argued that the man in the recording has an unblemished back, meaning Kelly couldn't be the man in the video.

If you don't see the mole, the defense told the jury, then Kelly cannot be convicted. Kelly's attorneys also suggested the 27-minute tape had been doctored, going so far as to say someone could have edited the singer's head onto another man's body. A prosecution expert testified such editing trickery would take 44 years and still would be obvious to viewers.

The defense team was ecstatic with the verdict, calling it a major victory for an innocent man.

Ed Genson, Kelly's lead attorney, said he has "graduated from late middle age to senior citizen on this case. Now I am going to get a little sleep." Sitting beside him at a table speaking to the media was Adam Jr., who traded compliments with Genson.

Adam said the entire case was won because of Genson and his legal strategy. Genson said Adam "gave one of the best closing arguments I have ever heard." Genson called the legal team the best he has worked with in his legal career.

"The evidence won the case, and we put together the best trial team I have seen in 43 years of practicing law," Genson said.

The drawn-out legal battle has not slowed Kelly's music career. He has released five albums and a greatest-hits collection since he was indicted in 2002. He also has completed several concert tours.

___

(Tribune reporters Azam Ahmed, Kayce Ataiyero, Jeff Coen, Monique Garcia, Jeremy Gorner, James Janega and Angela Rozas contributed to this report.)

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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