The R. Kelly trial: How the R&B superstar got off.

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June 13 2008 7:21 PM

Long Live the Little Man Defense!

How R. Kelly got off.

Read Josh Levin's first set of Dispatches from the R. Kelly trial. And there's more: Levin went back to Chicago for a second round of Dispatches. Click on the audio player below to hear Josh Levin read this entry. You can also download the audio file here.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

R. Kelly's child pornography trial wasn't very complicated. On one side, you've got a 27-minute sex tape. This tape shows a man who looks like R. Kelly giving money to, having sex with, and urinating on someone who looks like his goddaughter, a girl who would've been around 14 at the time. All of this takes place in a log-cabin-style sauna room that looks exactly like R. Kelly's log-cabin-style sauna room. On the other side, you've got the Shaggy defense (It wasn't me!), the Little Man defense (It's my head on some other dude's body!), the Sparkle defense (I was framed by a bunch of money-grubbing lowlifes!), and the "ghost sex" defense (I'm actually not sure what the point of this one was, but there were headless people having sex and it was weird and creepy). On Thursday, the jury retired to weigh the evidence. On Friday, they emerged with a verdict: not guilty on all counts. R. Kelly walks, and Little Man becomes the first Wayans brothers movie to contribute to a man's welfare.

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To my eyes—and to the eyes of pretty much every other courtroom watcher I talked to—R. Kelly's lawyers played better as a comedy team than as a defense team. I never quite bought, for instance, that a bunch of disgruntled hangers-on would have the energy or the wherewithal to hatch an extortionate scheme that centered on the manufacture and distribution of 30 minutes worth of seamless, Hollywood-quality, digitally crafted faux pornography. What was I missing?

Perhaps I simply paid too much attention to the defense team's razzle-dazzle. Looking back, I suppose it's possible that the jury would've acquitted if the defense had said absolutely nothing. As Kelly's lawyers mentioned multiple times, the alleged victim in this case—now a 23-year-old woman—told a grand jury that it wasn't her. While 15 friends and relatives testified that the girl in question was indeed on the video, neither the alleged victim nor her parents showed up in court to testify for either side. For all of the defense team's zany theories, it was most likely this simple fact that gave the jurors pause. As one juror told the Chicago Tribune, "at some point we said there was a lack of evidence." A VHS tape, it seems, was never going to be enough. The only chance the prosecution had was that Kelly would slip up and re-enact the crime within viewing distance of the jury box.

The defense, I'm guessing, will also send Lisa Van Allen a thank-you note. Van Allen, who testified that she had multiple threesomes with Kelly and the alleged victim, was supposed to be the state's star witness. Whatever the prosecution gained by calling a woman who says she saw Kelly and his goddaughter have sex, they lost a whole lot more as the defense chipped away at Van Allen's credibility. Rather than keeping the jury focused on the tape, state's attorneys Shauna Boliker and Robert Heilingoetter found themselves having to explain away their witness' ample character flaws: relationships with two men convicted of federal bank fraud, her admission that she stole Kelly's Rolex, an alleged attempt to solicit a bribe from the defense's private investigator. The legal lesson here: If your star witness is the kind of character who would have a threesome with R. Kelly, you probably need to find yourself a better star witness.

Aside from its overlong visit to the Van Allen radiation belt, the state didn't make any glaring errors. This wasn't the O.J. trial, where the prosecutors snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Boliker and Heilingoetter had the more-convincing forensic video analyst and the more-believable friends and relatives. When three defense witnesses said they knew the alleged victim wasn't the girl in the video, the prosecutors devised an ingenious, understated way to undermine their testimony, showing the witnesses and the jury a pair of identical-looking images: one from the sex tape, one from a video made by the alleged victim's musical group. But in the end, Boliker and Heilingoetter were undone by what they didn't have. Even without a cooperative victim, the state's attorneys might have swayed the jury if Judge Vincent Gaughan had allowed them to present evidence of Kelly's past transgressions, like the four known settlements he's paid to underage girls who've accused him of sexual misconduct. Once you know all of that stuff, it's somewhat hard to imagine that R. Kelly didn't tape himself having sex with an underage girl. If, like the jury, you don't know the singer's history, there's a lot more room for doubt.

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