*Trigger warning: This post contains details of a sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing or triggering.
January 17, 2019
By Eboni K. Williams
Since the airing of Lifetime’s docuseries ‘Surviving R. Kelly,’ the nation has been gripped in conversation about sexual abuse, survivors’ stories, and what we must all learn from this tragic breakdown of family, community, the criminal justice system, and greater society.
Watching this heartbreaking and infuriating story unfold, one unavoidable and reoccurring question is: How in the world was this man found not guilty at trial with so many girls, and young women, telling the same stories of abuse and assault for more than 25 years?
When I was a young criminal defense lawyer, a seasoned attorney told me something that stuck with me about our criminal justice system: “In every case, there is what actually happened, and then there is what you can prove in a court of law.” The essence of this statement is that while our court system has noble ambition, we cannot confuse truth with justice.
If you’re looking for an example of this truth and justice distinction, remember George Zimmerman? Zimmerman was declared not-guilty during a verdict in the 2013 Florida vs. George Zimmerman trial. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter for shooting and killing unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Similarly, during R. Kelly’s 2008 trial for 14 counts of child pornography, he was found not guilty. For those unable to comprehend how those jurors watched a 27-minute-long video tape of R. Kelly engaging in unspeakable sex acts with a then-14-year-old girl, heard from 14 witnesses who identified the man on the tape as R. Kelly and the girl as the 14-year-old girl, and still managed to come to the legal conclusion that there was reasonable doubt, and therefore declare him not guilty, consider the following.
The R. Kelly trial is a perfect example of how “what you can prove in a court of law” is different from “what actually happened.” In many cases of assault, the prosecutor’s case is about their ability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt how the defendant committed the alleged offense.
As an advocate for survivors and criminal defense lawyer, I understand that survivor’s testimony plays an important role in court. When a survivor shares their story in court, the jurors connect with the fact that the victim is real, and what they said happened actually happened. It also helps jurors see the defendant as someone who caused real harm.
I also understand that in the midst of managing trauma, pain, and anguish from their abuse, it can be difficult for survivors to come forward in a court of law and that every survivor has to make their own decision about how and when to come forward.
In R. Kelly’s case, the 14-year-old girl on the tape made the decision not to testify. Prosecutors tried to balance this by bringing in 14 other witnesses to positively identify the female victim on the tape as the 14-year-old girl. Those witnesses included many other young black girls who played basketball and went to school with the alleged victim.
A rational person would think that testimony would be enough. But R. Kelly’s trial is a heart-breaking example of how we dismiss the stories of black girls and women. A 2017 study called Gender and Trauma found that black girls are viewed by adults as more sexually mature than white girls in the same peer group. That means that when black girls are victims of sexual assault, they are less likely to be believed because they’re seen as older than they actually are.
In a perfect world, victims would not have to publicly relive their trauma in a courtroom to find justice. I’ve known victims who think and hope that the hardest part is over once the perpetrator is arrested. They felt the prosecutor could handle the rest on their own, and since something awful happened, the system would figure the rest out and hold their abuser accountable to the fullest extent of the law. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.
R. Kelly’s defense team presented the alleged victim’s own father to testify that the young girl on the videotape was not his daughter. His contradictory testimony, along with that of a handful of other family members, all but ensured that the jurors would have to find (at least) reasonable doubt as to the identity of the young girl on the videotape.
Sowing even the smallest seeds of doubt about identification of a victim almost always leads to acquittal.
A victim’s decision to testify is an extremely complex one. No one knows what a jury will ultimately do, but as things stand realistically today, a victim must weigh the heartbreak of testifying with the possibility that the case would be strengthened by her participation in the trial.