Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial
Click on the audio player below to hear Josh Levin read this entry. You can also download the audio file here.
If there's a life lesson to be taken from the R. Kelly trial, it's that when you're trying to help your niece launch a music career, perhaps it's best to widen the search for mentors beyond the man who sings "It Seems Like You're Ready" and "I Like the Crotch on You." On the stand this afternoon, Stephanie Edwards (aka R&B singer Sparkle) says that she introduced the alleged victim, a budding rapper and singer, to Kelly when the three of them met up in the log cabin to watch the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. Depending on whether that was the Bulls'fifth or sixth championship, the alleged victim would've been either 12 or 13. A basketball player herself, the girl was jolly, personable, and a little tomboyish—Kelly, Edwards says, "liked her spirit." (This suggests a possible song title for the clean version of R. Kelly's greatest hits: "I Like the Spirit on You.")
Stephanie Edwards' two hours of testimony are a reminder that the clichés of the televised courtroom drama aren't entirely fanciful. As she remembers her niece's personality, Edwards—her hair up in a tight bob, gold hoop earrings dangling down to the top of her long neck, a dash of Sparkle-y glitter applied neatly above her left cheek—dabs at her eyes, and one of the sheriff's deputies in the room brings her tissues. Defense attorney Edward Genson, too, performs like a man in search of a camera. Genson, who looks like an unkempt sheepdog but questions witnesses like a flesh-hungry pit bull, presses her to admit that she was intimately involved with the production and distribution of the sex tape, including scheduling a screening for the girls' parents. Sparkle says that never happened. "You have no idea why they'll testify to that?" Genson asks, immediately withdrawing the question as the prosecution objects furiously.
For the first half-hour or so of cross-examination, Genson gathers details to support the defense's Little Man theory. He asks whether she knows how many of the "hours and hours" of footage typically shot for a music video are never used (she has no idea), how many different videos Kelly has made over the years (a lot), and how many videos the alleged victim's much smaller-time musical group starred in during its career (she says two or three).
Genson next establishes Sparkle's motive: a bitter musical divorce. After her self-titled debut (released in 1998 and produced, written, and arranged by Kelly) was certified platinum, Edwards expressed a desire to work with other producers. This didn't sit well with Kelly, she acknowledges, and the two of them parted ways contractually in 2000. Over Genson's protestations, Edwards insists that she and Kelly still got along personally at this point—"he was my homeboy"—though she also admits that Kelly withheld royalty payments and claims that he still hasn't paid for her decade-old album. A short while later, Sparkle started talking with record exec Barry Hankerson, Kelly's one-time manager and now bitter enemy. (Genson asserts that Hankerson and Kelly are foes, though he omits the fact that Kelly's child-bride, Aaliyah, was Hankerson's niece; upon leaving the singer's employ, Hankerson wrote a letter to Kelly's record label saying that he "needed psychiatric help for his compulsion to pursue underage girls.") Genson, with his voice raised to a near-shout, tries repeatedly and futilely to get Edwards to admit that she got calls on her cell phone from Hankerson, and that they talked about their common enemy. "Was part of the deal doing something bad to Robert?" a frothing Genson asks. When Sparkle says "of course not," he repeats her words back sarcastically.
Genson leaves it to us to put all of this together. Let's give it a try: Frustrated with her declining musical career (and perhaps resentful of Kelly's astoundingly successful one), Sparkle hatched a scheme to extort her rich ex-mentor and to turn the words of her hit song "Be Careful" into reality. ("You better be careful what you do to me," she sang, " 'cause somebody might do it to you.") While Kelly was out making beats one night, she enlisted a pair of underemployed porn actors to bust into the singer's log cabin and film themselves having sex, peeing, etc. Meanwhile, Sparkle and Hankerson harvested outtakes from Kelly's copious back catalog of music videos, then took advantage of the thriving black market in Little Man-quality digital-effects wizardry to Frankenstein together Kelly's face and the urinator's body. (Sparkle's motive for putting her niece in the video is less clear. For the sake of argument, let's assume that she was mad at her for, say, borrowing her glitter without permission.) After Kelly refused to pay to keep the video under wraps, Sparkle sent the video to the Chicago Sun-Times, willing to make her niece collateral damage to disgrace the man who'd done her wrong.
The defense, of course, doesn't have the burden of proving that all of this happened, and Genson does create a few slivers of doubt about Edwards' story. Sparkle says that she first learned of the tape in December 2001 via a phone call from a lawyer named "Buddy something." Her choice to omit the man's last name—it's Meyers, by the way—comes off a bit stagy, like she's trying too hard to act like she'd never heard of or spoken to the guy. A couple of lingering questions: How did Meyers get the tape, and why would Meyers first contact the alleged victim's aunt—a woman who happened to have a failed working relationship with Kelly—rather than the girl's parents?
Near the end of her hours of testimony, Edwards cocks her head to the side with a quick snap, finally unable to hide her annoyance with Genson's unrelenting inquisition. The defense attorney, perhaps noting the change in the witness's mood, shifts into theatrical overdrive. Genson tries to get a rise out of Edwards by shouting that it is not Kelly on the sex tape. The conversation devolves into a testy exchange over whether the girl on the tape is or is not a prostitute and whether or not we're all here today because Edwards is after Kelly's money. "Sweetie, I am not trying to get any money with this," says Edwards. Rarely has a term of endearment dripped with so much disdain. ("I am not your sweetie," Genson states for the record.)
With the witness and lawyer playing the dozens, Judge Gaughan steps in to break things up before they get out of hand. Genson, however, won't stop talking, and now it's Gaughan who is ready to rumble—"Mr. Genson, you're not listening!"—a military man clearly irked with having lost control of his troops.
From the beginning, Gaughan has been determined not to let this trial turn into a circus, going so far as to speak with court officials involved in Michael Jackson's trial in the hopes of avoiding a similar zoo in Cook County. The lesson he seems to have drawn is that a judge must carry a big gavel to maintain order in such a high-profile case. The day's proceedings had started with a short trial, conducted before the press, of a Chicagoan who had dared run afoul of Gaughan's regime. Debra Triplett, a scraggly-looking 48-year-old woman, entered the courtroom with hands cuffed behind her back and wearing a baggy white T-shirt big enough to suggest it might also serve as her residence. Triplett had found herself outside the elevator that was transporting the jury to the courtroom. Seeing the jury disembark, she had been unable to resist the urge to shout, "Free R. Kelly!" Arguing that she had potentially tainted the jurors, Gaughan held her for contempt, set bail at $50,000, and scheduled a hearing on June 25. A few minutes later, Gaughan called in the jury and asked whether they'd heard anyone shouting. They had not.
The prosecution won't call any more witness this week, so that's all for me. Gaughan shouldn't rest easy, though, as his resolve will surely be tested when Kelly's attorneys unleash the long awaited I'm Gonna Git You Sucka defense. So long for now, Chicago.