The paparazzi and TV news crews have spent weeks scouting the Cook County Criminal Court for the perfect spot to shoot arrivals, departures and stand-ups. The judge presiding over the case sought advice from a fellow jurist in Santa Barbara County on how to handle a case involving an international celebrity and the media blitz that is sure to follow.
Inside the freshly painted courthouse, reporters from MTV News, Jet and Blender magazines jockeyed with local journalists for seats.
In the city where prosecutors took down Al Capone, and high-profile courtroom dramas normally feature corrupt politicians and mobsters, the child pornography case against R&B superstar R. Kelly that began this week has brought Chicago a relatively unusual legal experience: the salacious celebrity trial.
Nearly six years after Kelly was indicted for allegedly filming himself having sex with a girl who may have been as young as 13 at the time, opening arguments in the case began Tuesday, with prosecutors and the defense team sparring over the 14 counts of child pornography that are tied to the nearly decade-old home movie.
Almost immediately, both sides focused on the controversial tape -- which, according to prosecutors, shows a man handing cash to a young female and the pair engaging in various sex acts.
The tape was “the production of R. Kelly,” and illustrated “frame by disgusting frame” the victimization of a child, Assistant State’s Atty. Shauna Boliker said Tuesday.
“This case is about child pornography that was created, staged, produced and starred in by the defendant that sits before you, Robert Kelly,” Boliker told jurors.
Kelly, who was born Robert S. Kelly, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the 41-year-old Grammy-winning artist -- who grew up in a rough public housing project on the city’s South Side and has sold tens of millions of records -- could face as long as 15 years in prison.
Kelly’s defense lawyer, Sam Adam Jr., argued that Kelly was not the man seen on the tape. The alleged victim, now an adult, also has consistently stated that she is not the person featured in the video.
Adam told jurors no one knows how the tape -- which runs nearly 27 minutes -- came into being, or whether the original videotape still exists.
“This is a copy of a copy of a copy,” Adam said. He added that it could have been tampered with before being delivered anonymously to a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.
“The last time Chicago had a celebrity trial in the true Hollywood sense of the word like this, it was back in the 1960s when Lenny Bruce was being prosecuted for obscenity,” said Albert Alschuler, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “Our idea of celebrity is more along the political or presidential lines, rather than someone with screaming fans and L.A. agents.”
Indeed, five of Illinois’ last nine governors have been tried on, convicted of, or had their legacies stained by charges of criminal wrongdoing.
Since the charges were filed against Kelly in 2002, there have been nearly as many delays and odd moments in the courtroom as pretrial motions -- more than 30 -- filed by the defense.
There was the question of whether Kelly could attend the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2004: Cook County Judge Vincent M. Gaughan allowed it -- on the condition that he not associate or come into contact with Michael Jackson. (The two performers didn’t know one another. At the time, Jackson was facing child molestation charges.)
Last year, a woman awaiting her probation violation hearing used her cellphone camera to take pictures of Kelly inside the courtroom. Gaughan sent her to jail for two days, and had the phone destroyed.
Earlier this month, a local radio reporter nearly lost his media credentials after he offered a bag of doughnuts to courtroom deputies. Meanwhile, a Chicago Tribune reporter was questioned by Gaughan after a juror told him that the paper had tried to contact him at home. (It turned out to be a telemarketer selling subscriptions.)
Some critics say that Gaughan has kept too tight a hold on courtroom proceedings, noting that many documents and hearings have been either sealed or closed to the media. Advocates counter that Gaughan, who issued a gag order blocking attorneys and court staff from talking about the case, is simply curtailing potential problems.
But some fans wouldn’t be denied the chance to see their idol: As the singer left the courtroom for lunch Tuesday, half a dozen young females shrieked “I love you!” and tried to chase after him. Court officers quickly corralled the screaming fans and ushered them into an elevator.
“I got up at 4 a.m. to support him, and I’ll be here every day until he’s free,” said Ivy Johnson, 20, a Chicago resident. “He’s so hot, he can’t be guilty.”