R. Kelly’s lead lawyer, Deveraux Cannick, began the R&B star’s final defense in his racketeering and sex trafficking trial on Thursday by discussing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. In his closing statement to the jury in a Brooklyn federal courtroom, Cannick contemplated the civil rights movement and the importance of living up to the vision of America as set out by the Constitution.
Invoking King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Cannick suggested that Kelly and King were fighting similar battles to make the United States “be true to what’s on paper.”
“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press,” Cannick quoted, before bringing listeners back to the courtroom. “That’s all Robert is trying to do.”
It was, objectively, a head-scratching comparison. Over the course of his nearly three-hour remarks, Cannick did not return to it, but continued to speak at a similarly lofty rhetorical level. “He doesn’t need your sympathy,” the attorney said. “He just needs your sense of fairness.” Employing long pauses and heavy repetition of key phrases, he often let such declarations sit in dramatic silence. The remarks came as Kelly’s federal trial on charges related to racketeering and sex trafficking approached its conclusion after more than five weeks. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to each charge and faces between 10 years in prison and a life sentence if convicted on all counts.
The substance of Cannick’s summation relied on the tack he’s taken throughout his cross-examination of Kelly’s alleged victims, depicting them as disgruntled fans who invited Kelly’s advances or were seeking money. He referred to one accuser as “a stalker, a groupie extraordinaire.” Citing shopping sprees and Uber accounts that he said Kelly paid for, Cannick said, “You heard about a man who treated these women like gold.”
In one instance, Cannick mocked the disposition of witnesses who didn’t immediately answer his questions: Uh, aw, I don’t know. It was one of several attempts to inject some humor into his remarks, and one play on words seemed to bring him particular joy.
“A lot of people watched Surviving R. Kelly,” Cannick said, referring to the 2019 documentary series that brought new waves of scrutiny to the allegations against Kelly, “and unfortunately, a lot of people are now surviving off R. Kelly.”
The Kelly supporters on the scene, playing his music outside the courthouse as they have throughout the trial, cheered Cannick as he left the building.
In her rebuttal, U.S. Attorney Nadia Shihata took particular objection to Cannick’s statements about how Kelly’s alleged victims dressed or danced. “It’s as if we took a time machine and went back to a courthouse in 1950,” she said on Thursday. “What they’re basically arguing is that all of these women and girls were asking for it and they deserved what they got.
“It’s not just absurd,” Shihata continued. “It’s shameful.”
In her remarks, which lasted for roughly an hour over the course of two days, Shihata urged jurors to resist Cannick’s rhetorical style. “He often raised his voice, walked around the courtroom, and put on a show,” she said on Friday, recalling an exchange early in the trial when Cannick pressed one of Kelly’s accusers to explain how she could’ve aged two years between April 2008 and May 2009, only to quickly learn that the witness’s birthday was April 19. “That’s the kind of nonsense that went on in here,” Shihata said.
On several occasions, in its closing statement and rebuttal to the defense’s summation, the prosecution invoked the first names (some of which are pseudonyms) of the six women whose allegations against Kelly form the core of the case against him: Aaliyah, Jane, Sonja, Stephanie, Jerhonda, and Faith. As Shihata listed them for a final time in the trial, she stood beside a bulletin board that depicted the alleged enterprise of Kelly’s employees, who prosecutors claim have enabled Kelly’s abuse throughout his career.
With arguments coming to a close, the jury is expected to begin deliberating on Friday. During Shihata’s rebuttal, Kelly occasionally shook or hung his head as the prosecution concluded its portrait of the ways in which he has operated throughout his career. “For almost three decades the defendant believed he was untouchable,” Shihata said. “He still believes that today.”
KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/GETTY IMAGES