Why Prosecutors Added Strange New Charge To R. Kelly Case

R. Kelly, appearing in Cook County criminal court in Chicago on June 26.
R. Kelly, appearing in Cook County criminal court in Chicago in June. Kelly is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on a new charge in Brooklyn federal court. The charge is apparently linked to Kelly’s 1994 marriage to singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time. E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / Pool Photo
R. Kelly, appearing in Cook County criminal court in Chicago on June 26.
R. Kelly, appearing in Cook County criminal court in Chicago in June. Kelly is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on a new charge in Brooklyn federal court. The charge is apparently linked to Kelly’s 1994 marriage to singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time. E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / Pool Photo

Why Prosecutors Added Strange New Charge To R. Kelly Case

When federal prosecutors in New York added a new charge against R. Kelly earlier this month, the singer was already being held in jail in Chicago and facing 38 charges in four separate jurisdictions.

All told, the cases involve more than a dozen alleged victims, and allege horrendous conduct including rape, child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation of a child and obstruction of justice.

Yet prosecutors added a seemingly bizarre charge in early December alleging Kelly bribed a public official in Illinois more than 25 years ago. The accusation is apparently connected to Kelly’s marriage to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah in 1994.

So why add one additional charge to the mountain of accusations Kelly is already facing?

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment on their motivation, and Kelly’s attorney Steve Greenberg said the charge changes nothing about the case.

Legal experts agreed the additional charge is “baffling” at first glance but they said prosecutors most likely added the bribery charge so they could tell a potential jury about Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah, in the hopes it would make jurors more likely to believe the other charges against him.

Former federal prosecutor Sergio Acosta said that in federal court, prosecutors are not allowed to introduce evidence to show a defendant’s “propensity” to commit the crimes of which he is accused. He said adding the bribery charge “ensures” they can tell the jury that Kelly married a 15-year-old girl when he was 27. That would set the stage for the alleged decades of sexual abuse to follow.

“The judge might have said this was too long ago or there’s no complaining witness so you can’t introduce this,” Acosta said of Kelly’s 1994 marriage to the now deceased Aaliyah. “If it’s in the charge you can’t keep it out.”

The hope for prosecutors, Acosta said, is that the marriage to a 15-year-old will show jurors what kind of person Kelly is and what he’s capable of.

University of Chicago law professor and former federal prosecutor Sharon Fairley said sometimes federal prosecutors will add a charge that “brings the case together” and “enhances the story that you’re putting together for the trial.”

Andrea Lyon, former dean of the Valparaiso University Law School, said defense attorneys will often try to undermine alleged victims of sexual abuse. That won’t be possible with the charge linked to Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah.

“At first glance, adding such a charge seems unnecessary or even gratuitous. But I wonder whether the prosecutors feel more comfortable having a charge where nobody has to believe a complaining witness at all to convict him,” Lyon said. “Aaliyah has attained sort of mythical status as a singer. You know, she's deceased. She's a star. All of those things can garner sympathy in her direction … The other complaining witness may not be as sympathetic in the eyes of a jury.”

Kelly is set to be arraigned via video on the new charge on Wednesday. Kelly intends to plead not guilty, as he has to all of the charges against him.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

Correction: An earlier version of the photo credit misidentified the source of the photo. It is a pool photo.