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Allegation of inappropriate witness contact by R. Kelly prosecutor raises temperature as trial nears

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 8/6/2022 Megan Crepeau, Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune
R. Kelly stands before Judge Lawrence Flood at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on June 6, 2019. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS R. Kelly stands before Judge Lawrence Flood at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on June 6, 2019.

With little more than a week to go until jury selection, R. Kelly’s federal trial in Chicago is shaping up to be a hotblooded, bare-knuckle legal brawl.

A barrage of last-minute filings from attorneys representing Kelly and his two co-defendants have shown little hesitance to bring new fights to the forefront — a far more aggressive approach than the legal team that defended Kelly at his trial last year in New York.

At issue in recent motions: A prosecutor’s purportedly “mysterious, clandestine, and totally inappropriate” communications with possible witnesses. A request for more information about an underage victim that was public, then quickly sealed. A longtime Chicago journalist who has been subpoenaed as a possible witness.

Meanwhile, some 100 prospective jurors are slated to show up at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in about a week.

Kelly, 55, was indicted in July 2019 on charges of conspiring with his former business manager, Derrel McDavid, and another associate, Milton “June” Brown, to rig his 2008 child pornography case in Cook County and hide years of alleged sexual abuse of underage girls. The trial is slated to begin Aug. 15 and likely will last at least a month.

Attorneys for McDavid early Friday filed paperwork with new allegations about Assistant U.S. Attorney Angel Krull, one of the lead prosecutors in the case until 2020 when she transferred to another district of the U.S. attorney’s office. Sources told the Tribune she left Chicago to be closer to an ailing relative.

Prosecutors have requested until Tuesday to respond to the allegations.

McDavid’s attorneys allege Krull had inappropriate communications with a central witness in the case: the victim at the center of multiple child-pornography tapes that are expected to be played for jurors at trial. The victim, who is now an adult, is expected to testify that she was the underage girl in the videos, and that she lied about it to investigators at the behest of Kelly and his associates.

Krull had the woman’s number saved in her contacts under the name “Boss Baby,” and texted with her about meeting outside of work hours. And an investigator sent Krull selfies showing the woman’s pregnancy and Krull later complimented the woman on how she looked, saying that she was “beautiful” and “glowing,” according to McDavid’s attorneys.

The behavior was “extremely familiar and oddly personal in a way that is simply not consistent with the professional standards of the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” the attorneys alleged. There were also meetings and phone calls between the two women that were not memorialized in reports, a lapse in procedure that McDavid alleges could amount to a constitutional violation.

Meanwhile, the Chicago journalist who helped break the news of Kelly’s alleged sexual misconduct more than two decades ago has been subpoenaed as a possible trial witness, according to McDavid’s attorneys. Jim DeRogatis also communicated with Krull in the early stages of the case, though Krull for some reason used an email with the pseudonym “Demetrius Slovenski.”

DeRogatis has previously told the Tribune that he reached out to Krull first, in an unsuccessful attempt to cultivate her as a source. In court earlier this week prosecutors were adamant that DeRogatis is not being considered a potential government witness. McDavid’s attorneys confirmed in a court filing Friday that DeRogatis has been subpoenaed to testify at trial, presumably by McDavid’s attorneys.

DeRogatis, then a music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, received the sex tape at the center of Kelly’s 2002 case from an unknown sender. He also was called to the stand at R. Kelly’s first trial six years later; he declined to answer questions, citing reporter’s privilege and the First and Fifth amendments.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Kelly on Friday filed paperwork alleging that prosecutors made clerks seal a motion that would paint one of their witnesses in an unflattering light. The defense motion, still under seal, requested more information about potential illegal activity by one of the victims in the case, according to Friday’s filing.

Prosecutors responded saying they were obligated to keep the filing private since it “refers to a minor victim who is not publicly known and whose identity could be determined” by the information in the motion. They told Kelly’s attorneys that they believed it should be filed under seal, and warned that if it were filed publicly, they would get it back under seal until a judge could sort it out. When Kelly’s attorneys filed it publicly, prosecutors acted “within minutes” to get it off the public docket, according to their response.

Kelly’s Chicago trial comes on the heels of his sentencing in federal court in Brooklyn. In June, he was sentenced to a 30-year prison term for racketeering. He is appealing both the jury’s verdict and the judge’s sentence.

At the hearing Wednesday, Judge Harry Leinenweber revealed that a pool of 100 potential jurors would arrive at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse next week to fill out questionnaires ahead of jury selection — an attempt to weed out ineligible or potentially biased jurors before any in-court questioning. All of the jurors coming in have already indicated that they would be able to sit for a lengthy trial.

Over defense attorneys’ objections, Leinenweber ruled that jurors’ names, occupations and other identifying information would not be revealed to the public. Prosecutors said they worried that Kelly’s die-hard fans would harass jurors if their identities were made known; attorneys for the defense said jurors could get the idea that they should fear for their safety, which could bias them against the defendants.

Leinenweber noted that there is, in fact, “a rather large group of people … quite active in expressing disagreement with (Kelly’s) treatment,” and so the jurors’ identities would remain concealed. But in an effort to address the defense’s concerns, Leinenweber said he will tell jurors they are anonymous simply so that the media does not contact them.

The trial is the biggest to take place since the beginning of the pandemic at Chicago’s federal courthouse, where many COVID-19 restrictions remain in place, including masks for anyone not speaking in court, frequent COVID testing for jurors, witnesses and lawyers, and strict social distancing guidelines.

To accommodate all the parties, the trial is being held in the large ceremonial courtroom on the 25th floor, which has been in high demand. In fact, Leinenweber was adamant on Wednesday that the trial could take no longer than a month, since another trial is slated to start in the ceremonial room in late September.

“We’re going to get it done in four weeks come hell or high water,” Leinenweber said. “I have a reputation of moving a case along.”

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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