Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial

The Debut of the "Ghost Sex" Defense
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 6 2008 2:10 PM

Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial

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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.

Where would the defense be without Yul Brown and his Amazing Hypercolor Dreamsuit? For the last several days, R. Kelly's team has stopped defending its client and started highlighting the scheming ways and impressive girth of prosecution witness Lisa Van Allen's betrothed. (The prosecution says Van Allen admitted to having threesomes with R. Kelly and the alleged victim in this case because it was "the right thing to do"; the defense says the woman, with the help of her beefy fiance, was shopping her testimony to both sides.) Defense attorney Sam Adam Sr., for one, now asks almost every witness to guess the height and weight of the Mo Vaughn-resembling Brown. (Estimates cluster around 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds.) On Wednesday, Adam Sr. asked defense-team law clerk Jason Wallace, who's also a licensed NFL agent, whether he had in fact "seen a lot of NFL men smaller than Brown." Today, Adam Sr. asks Jack Palladino, an investigator hired by the defense to go to Atlanta and interview Brown and Van Allen, whether the former was intimidated by the presence of a hard-boiled private dick. Palladino laughs. "I don't think Mr. Brown intimidates easily," he says.

For weeks, the R. Kelly trial has been a celebrity case in search of a celebrity witness. Palladino—not to be confused with his pal, wiretapper extraordinaire Anthony Pellicano—is that celebrity, a Hollywood PI who'll kick your ass and charge you $1,000 an hour for the privilege. In 1992, Bill Clinton hired the bald, bearded detective, who looks like a streetwise James Lipton, to handle his campaign's frequent "bimbo eruptions"; Palladino has also worked for defendants like Michael Jackson and the Menendez Brothers, among others. Palladino doesn't intimidate easily himself. On the stand, he exudes the disdain of someone who has fried and consumed bigger fish than a lowly state's attorney or an overgrown, sartorially adventurous schemer. Palladino says that when he met with the pair for dinner at the Four Seasons, Brown mentioned repeatedly that his bride-to-be had a $300,000 book deal. "Yes, and I mocked them about it," Palladino says in a low, even tone. Believing he'd sussed out a coded attempt to solicit a bribe—essentially, pay us $300,000, or Van Allen will testify against her alleged former threesome partner—Palladino claims he then announced, "My client is never going to pay you." The couple left soon thereafter. The private investigator expresses remorse that Brown and Van Allen chose not to get a doggie bag for the pizza they'd ordered.

Everything the detective describes sounds like a scene from the Jack Palladino Mysteries—"He ate the pizza alone, slowly. He'd killed a man in this joint before, and he'd do it again if he didn't get any breadsticks." On the cross, prosecutor Robert Heilingoetter can't ruffle the PI's understated machismo. The state's attorney asks whether having a book deal is a crime. Palladino says it isn't, but only if it's a real deal rather than a thinly veiled cash grab. "Does everybody in this country who wants a book deal have to clear it through Jack Palladino?" Heilingoetter asks sarcastically. The book version: "The detective hesitated, reluctant to reveal the extent of his thriving literary agency." The real-life version: Palladino smirks silently, knowing he's won the day. On Wednesday, the prosecution scored by repeatedly pointing the jury to identical-looking, side-by-side photos of Sex Tape Girl and the alleged victim. In choosing to engage with Palladino on the subject of bribes and book deals, Heilingoetter has lost before he's begun. By defending Van Allen and Brown, the prosecution is doing the defense a huge favor—holding the spotlight on a couple of alleged anti-Kelly conspirators rather than concentrating on what and who is on that 27-minute sex tape.

Later in the afternoon, the defense brings the tape back into focus, calling its forensic video expert Charles Palm. Compared to the relentlessly amusing Palladino, whose stagy exchanges with Heilengoetter had the jury rapt (and occasionally in hysterics), Palm is a cadaver. (It pays to be the life of the witness stand, by the way. While Palladino says he cleared between $10,000 and $15,000 to stay at the Four Seasons, Palm has earned $20,000 for spending four years analyzing digitized urine.) For a half-hour, the video expert drones on about the different kinds of noise one might see on a VHS tape and the ins and outs of various video-editing suites. The lights then go down, and he begins drawing red circles around a bare behind. Now this is entertaining.

Palm, the czar of the sex-tape telestrator, first focuses on what the defense calls the "back sequence"—a half-second, 20-frame segment near the start of the tape that (depending on which VHS guru you believe) either debunks or shores up R. Kelly's where's-my-prominent-mole defense. I wasn't in the courtroom when Grant Fredericks, the prosecution's forensic video analyst, stepped through the back sequence last week, but my fellow reporters tell me that Fredericks zoomed in and stripped away some of the noise, revealing a telltale black spot in the neighborhood of Kelly's spine. Palm, by contrast, continually highlights and circles the nonmole noise—black marks that appear then disappear—and responds in the negative as defense attorney Marc Martin advances the tape: "Do you see a mole? Next frame. Do you see a mole?" Palm is right: It's impossible to see the mole on an unmagnified, low-quality videotape. Fortunately for the prosecution, the video does not depict two moles having sex. Rather than the "back sequence," a less forensically inclined viewer might term this the "guy who looks like R. Kelly taking off his shirt and pants sequence."

Next, Palm turns our attention to the "ghost sex sequence." To demonstrate how one might fake a sex tape, Palm has extracted a section from the video where there are no people on the screen, just plants and a wooden bench, and turned this into the background layer. He then cut out a clip of Sex Tape Man and Sex Tape Girl having intercourse from later in the tape, making this the foreground. As Palm increases the opacity of the foreground layer, the once-empty log cabin is gradually filled by the specter of bench sex. As he decreases the opacity of the bench-intercourse layer, the phantasms gradually fade away, then disappear entirely.

At first blush, this trickery looks creepy and impressive—Palm shifted the sex ghosts in space-time, and it looks real! Plus, the defense's video analyst says this took him only a few hours to accomplish. That's a lot faster than the 44 years that prosecution expert Fredericks said it would take to fabricate the tape. (Palm, by comparison, says it would take merely a couple of months to bring such a project to completion.)

Think about it for a few more seconds, though, and it's hard to see what exactly Palm is accomplishing, besides finding a way to make a weird, creepy sex tape even weirder and creepier. Palm has proven that you can cut up a pre-existing video of two people having sex to make it look like a new video of those two people having sex. He has not addressed the main occupational hazards for the R. Kelly sex-tape forger: stealing footage of a log cabin and/or building your own log cabin set, fabricating an audio track, finding actors who are happy to urinate on camera and participate in a blackmail scheme, unearthing previously unseen footage of the framees with their faces contorted in a sex-having manner, then extracting their heads and placing them on the bodies of the stunt copulators.

To his credit, Palm does try to address that last obstacle. This part of the demonstration is prefaced by a title card reading "With and Without Heads." The scene begins: straightforward log-cabin sex. Then Sex Tape Man's head disappears. The sex continues unabated. Both heads disappear. John the Baptist and Marie Antoinette continue going at it. He then shows off an altered version. "I took a head off of a different section of the tape that had nothing to do with this," Palm announces, "and yet if you look at it, it looks like fairly natural kind of movement." We then see a two-second sequence in which Sex Tape Man's Future Head is transplanted onto Sex Tape Man's Past Body. Even though the two halves belong to the same person, the movement looks herky-jerky.

Palm says that this is just a demo designed to show what's technically possible—he admits that his work would be detectable by a forensic video analyst or "anybody who's got good eyesight." If Palm could conjure this in just a few hours, though, shouldn't he have gone a little further? Imagine the impact of a video in which Sex Tape Man's head was placed on both bodies such that the R. Kelly look-alike was peeing on his own face and not-his-own breasts. That's what I call weird and creepy.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Shauna Boliker gets Palm to admit that he could not detect any fakery on the sex tape—he simply wasn't able to rule out that any chicanery had taken place. Boliker tries to prove the video's authenticity by showing a reel of hard-to-fake scenes: a glint in the girl's eyes as she receives a handful of money, a shot of their bodies writhing together, a few seconds of the girl urinating on the floor (a clip the prosecution has labeled, euphemistically, "clip3water").

"Is it true that water or urination would be difficult to fake?" Boliker asks. While Pixar would agree with that sentiment, Palm says that "a lot of things would be possible to fake at this level." His theory is that VHS recorders were used to cover up the fakery—that the image degradation on the third- or fourth-generation copies sold on street corners and received by the Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis was an attempt to hide the cutting and pasting of a digital-effects maestro. Such changes would be easy to spot on the big screen, but much harder to suss out on a crappy video. (Also, while Palm doesn't protest, Boliker isn't being fair to him here. He's not suggesting that the urine on the tape is a special effect. In the Palmscenario, all of the urine on the tape would be real; the fake part would be the head attached to the urinator's body.)

The week of testimony ends with Kelly's attorneys finally bidding adieu to the Little Man theory. The new defense premise: the Michael Jordan theory. The classic Gatorade ad showing the young Michael Jordan playing one-on-one against the old Michael Jordan, defense attorney Marc Martin says, reveals the kind of magic you can create by superimposing images. Watch the commercial, though, and you'll notice that you rarely see the two Jordans' faces at the same time; when you do, it looks fake. Not to mention that the video is short, cost a ton of money, and doesn't show young Michael Jordan peeing on old Michael Jordan. I remain unconvinced, and I imagine the jury does as well.

That's all for me from Chicago. I'll be back with a report once the verdict comes down, which shouldn't be too long now. Until then, remember: The safest sex is ghost sex.