In a last-ditch effort to prove R. Kelly’s innocence in a sprawling sex-crimes case, the R&B singer’s defense team on Thursday compared him to Martin Luther King Jr., Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and, most bizarrely, Vice President Mike Pence.
The comparisons began within 30 seconds of defense attorney Deveraux Cannick launching into final arguments to the jury in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday. Prosecutors allege that the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer was at the helm of a criminal enterprise that helped him lure girls, women, and men for sexual abuse for decades.
Cannick said that Kelly and King both sought to uphold the Constitution—before quoting King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
“Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech,” Cannick said. “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly.”
“That’s all Robert is trying to do,” Cannick said, insisting that Kelly, like King, wanted America to “be true to what’s on paper” in the Constitution.
But Cannick’s bold argument only got weirder as he argued that the nine women and two men who testified they were abused by the singer were all liars who had an agenda. At one point, Cannick even called one woman, who alleged she was physically and sexually assaulted during a six-month relationship with Kelly when she was 16, as a “stalker, a groupie extraordinaire” who lied about her time with the singer.
“They were lying and you know they were lying,” Cannick said. “Just lie after lie after lie. The government let them lie.”
“Where is the fairness to Robert? Where is the integrity in the system?” he added.
Prosecutors allege Kelly, 54, systematically abused women and girls, at least four of whom were minors when he first had sexual contact with them. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to the nine counts against him, which include racketeering based on kidnapping and sexual exploitation of children and violations of the Mann Act—which prohibits the transport of people across state lines for sex.
Over the course of the trial, jurors heard from 50 witnesses from both the prosecution and the defense about the inner workings of Kelly’s personal and professional life. In addition to testifying about alleged criminal conduct, the witnesses—who ranged from former girlfriends to assistants to music executives—detailed Kelly’s nocturnal lifestyle, an affinity for playing basketball in front of an audience, and strict rules the singer made his staff and personal guests obey.
But Cannick argued Thursday that Kelly’s conduct was just the result of his “international fame”—and that he was simply living the “playboy lifestyle.”
“His label made him a sex symbol and playboy. Where is the crime in that?” Cannick said, before comparing his client to the Playboy founder. “Hugh Hefner, that was his life—not a crime. Not a crime.”
Kelly’s defense lawyer went further off the deep end when he argued that his client’s behavior was not illegal, simply outside the sexual mainstream. He cited, in particular, what witnesses said was Kelly’s insistence only on being referred to as “Daddy,” a moniker they said they would be punished for failing to use.
But even as Kelly is accused of sexually assaulting several people under the age of 18—during which time they were allegedly forced to use that very name—Cannick suggested the feds were engaged in puritanical tyranny.
“It’s not a crime to like kinky sex,” he said.
“Daddy! It’s almost a crime to call a man a Daddy. I guess people can’t do that anymore,” Cannick said. “The former Vice President called his wife Mother.”
Pence’s team did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
In their rebuttal, prosecutors accused the defense of victim-shaming and lying about what accusers said during the trial.
In an impassioned speech to jurors, Assistant United States Attorney Nadia Shihata chastised Cannick for implying that those who took the stand “were asking for it and they deserved what they got—never mind they were teenagers, too young to consent.”
“It’s as if we took a time machine and went back to a courtroom in the 1950s,” Shihata said, which earned angry grunts from Kelly supporters in the overflow courtroom. “It’s not just absurd, it’s shameful.”