Defense: Key government witness tried to extort R. Kelly

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FILE - Musician R. Kelly leaves the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago on June 6, 2019. Kellys federal trial starts Monday in Chicago. (AP Photo/Amr Alfiky, File)

CHICAGO – Defense lawyers at R. Kelly’s child pornography trial in Chicago sought Wednesday to portray a key government witness as a liar and extortionist, contending the man first approached the R&B star in 2001 and demanded that Kelly pay $1 million or he’d go public with video that could put Kelly in serious legal peril.

Those assertions came during seven hours of often blistering cross-examination of Charles Freeman, a former merchandizing agent for Kelly who testified Tuesday that it was Kelly who first approached him, eventually offering Freeman $1 million to recover a VHS tape featuring Kelly.

“Your entire relationship with (Kelly) centered around stealing from him and lying to him,” lead Kelly attorney Jennifer Bonjean, raising her voice, told Freeman Wednesday. Minutes later, she added, “You were part of a shakedown scheme, right?” Freeman shot back, “No!” He also said, “I am not a thief.”

Federal prosecutors charged Kelly with production of child pornography based in part on that recording, which they say shows him sexually abusing a 14-year-old. He and co-defendant Derrel McDavid are also accused of successfully rigging Kelly’s 2008 state child pornography trial by threatening witnesses and concealing video evidence.

Freeman’s testimony at this trial helps buttress prosecutors' claims that both Kelly and McDavid knew that videos Kelly had lost track of in the early 2000s were incriminating and could lead to his conviction at the 2008 trial.

McDavid’s lawyer, Beau Brindley, started the cross-examination Wednesday by pacing, waving grand jury transcripts at Freeman and several times telling the 52-year-old to “be quiet and listen” to his questions as he sought to tear down Freeman’s credibility.

“How many times have you told lies about videotapes connected to Robert Kelly?” Brindley asked, using Kelly’s full first name. “It’s multiple times right?”

Freeman agreed it was.

Freeman, who is testifying under an immunity agreement, also agreed when Brindley asked if it was difficult “to trust a person who lies … who will cheat and steal to get money.”

Kelly, 55, was handed a 30-year prison sentence by a federal judge in New York in June for convictions on racketeering and sex trafficking charges. If convicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago, he could see years added to that sentence.

Brindley also accused Freeman of lying when he testified that he found the video Kelly was looking for in Atlanta in 2001 and when he said he didn’t know its contents until he watched it later the same day. Brindley suggested Freeman never actually went to Atlanta and that he already possessed a potentially compromising video of Kelly, using it to extort Kelly.

“That’s how all this happened, isn’t it?” Brindley asked. Freeman said that wasn't true.

Freeman said money wasn’t his only motivation for agreeing to hunt down the video, insisting he also wanted to help his friend, Kelly, whom he had known since around 1990.

Freeman conceded that he kept copies of videos for nearly 20 years. Not until a lawyer warned him in 2019 that police were poised to arrest Freeman for possession of child pornography did he finally turn them over to law enforcement, he testified.

After Freeman smiled as Brindley questioned him about holding onto child pornography for so long, Brindley asked: “Is this funny? Are you having a good time?” Freeman responded, “Yes, I am.”

“You aren’t upset with what you’ve done?” Brindley asked.

“I am not,” Freeman answered.

After acquitting Kelly in 2008, some jurors told reporters they had no choice because the girl — who then was in her 20s — did not take the witness stand to confirm it was her in the video that was at the heart of the state's case. Last week, she testified at the federal trial in Chicago, saying she was the child in the video and Kelly was the adult man.


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