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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No Judge Ito, he.

Opening statements begin today in the trial of R&B star R. Kelly at the storied Cook County Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. Kelly was indicted on child pornography charges in 2002 in connection with a home movie he allegedly made a decade ago, in which he ostensibly had sex with a girl who some have claimed may have been as young as 13.

There is, however, a major wrinkle in the prosecutor’s case – the supposed victim insists it is not she in the video. Prosecutors say they will introduce testimony from witnesses contradicting the woman’s assertions, and also plan to call a woman who will testify that she and Kelly had sex when she was underage.

Leonard L. Cavise, a professor at DePaul University’s law school, posits in an article in the New York Times that if the purported victim is at all credible, and the prosecution can’t show she’s been bought off, her testimony can’t fail to cause reasonable doubt. Meanwhile, he continues, Chicago has been made a laughingstock. “It’s as if they said, ‘Let’s spend millions of dollars and six years, shut down an important courtroom, cause a media circus and end up either convicting him of nothing at all or on some charge that has nothing to do with what you really should get him on if he’s guilty: sex with children.”

Indeed, the proceedings are surrounded by much hoopla, with press coverage from all over the world. The Chicago Tribune, which has promised its readers “gavel to gavel” coverage, reports that press from CNN, People Magazine, Agence France-Presse, and the Steve Dahl show will all cozy up together on a courtroom bench to take in the proceedings.

Presiding over the trial is Judge Vincent Gaughan, a tough, no-nonsense jurist who is doing everything he can to ensure that what takes place inside his courtroom will be measured and controlled. While it’s a given that having a fair and impartial judge in any criminal trial is essential, in a high-profile case the need for firm but sensitive control is paramount. The glare of media coverage can subvert the best intentions of even the most experienced judge.

Judge Gaughan seems to have a unique approach. Predictably, he has entered a gag order barring lawyers and court personnel connected with the case from speaking with reporters. Less predictably, he jailed a woman who was in court on her own probation violation after she snapped photos of R. Kelly with her cell phone, and ordered the phone destroyed. And last week during jury selection, he complained about reporters sticking their chewing gum under the courtroom benches, threatening to order DNA testing on the wads of Wrigley’s and bring the culprits to justice.

Joking or not, everyone is on notice to tread – and chew – carefully in Judge Gaughan’s courtroom. CR

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