It took more than six years for prosecutors to get the R&B star R. Kelly into court on charges of child pornography. It only took a few hours for a jury to declare him not guilty on all 14 counts.

Kelly had been accused of making a 27-minute sex tape with an underage female. But a high-powered defence team convinced the jury of nine men and three women that the identity of the girl was not conclusive.

As the verdicts were being read yesterday, the singer started crying and whispering “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus,” over and over again, his lawyers said.

Kelly, 41, whose signature song is “I Believe I Can Fly,” saluted a crowd of his fans as he left court and then put his hand on his heart. He made no remarks, but the impassive face he had worn during the four-week trial showed a flicker of a smile.

In the same courtroom where the trial was conducted, five jurors told reporters that the absence of testimony from the alleged victim was a big handicap. “All of us felt the greyness of the case,” one juror said.

As outlined in the prosecution’s opening and closing statements, the case was intended to be clear-cut: The “sweet, nice, lovely” victim was introduced to Kelly at the age of 12 by her aunt, a protégée of Kelly’s named Stephanie Edwards. But instead of making the girl a star, Kelly preyed on her, made her do “vile, disgusting” things and filmed them. Since Kelly knew she was underage, the state said, he is guilty of making child pornography.

Expert witnesses for the prosecution said the VHS tape, whose origin is unknown, was a multi-generation copy but had not been tampered with. Prosecutors also pointed out how the man on the tape turned his back briefly to the camera. It was less than a quarter of a second, but enough time to see a mole on his back – just like the one Kelly has.

While 14 witnesses for the prosecution identified the girl in the tape, and some identified Kelly as well, only one tied them together in a sexual relationship. That was Lisa Van Allen, who testified that she had a three-way sexual encounter with them.

Van Allen, who received state and federal immunity to testify, did not appear to be an unimpeachable witness.

She told the court that she had first had sex with Kelly at age 17, immediately after being introduced to him on the set of one of his videos, and admitted that she stole a $20,000 Rolex from him. Her current boyfriend and a former boyfriend are both felons. The defence team called her a liar and extortionist.

Kelly’s lawyers filed so many motions that they helped delay the start of the trial for six years. But once in court, the lawyers adopted a minimalist approach, limiting their side of the story to two days. Kelly did not testify.

At the time this seemed to reveal a weakness of the defence’s case. The defence team never even denied that the tape had been shot in Kelly’s former home.

As portrayed by defence lawyer Sam Adam Jr. in closing arguments, Kelly was less predator than prey, the victim of a loose conspiracy by Edwards, whose career disappeared after a falling-out with the star, as well as Van Allen and others searching for a payoff, revenge or both.

“This whole thing, from beginning to end, is about money,” Adam said.

Flailing his arms, he suggested not one but many alternate narratives: that the mole on the back of the man in the film didn’t exist, was a computer blip or was inserted by an unknown someone for nefarious purposes; that the film itself was a fake; or that it starred models or prostitutes who looked like Kelly and his alleged victim.

He proposed that the jury would not recognize the woman, who is now 23, if she were sitting in the courtroom.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” he said. “How do you victimize a person when she says, `It’s not me’?”

For good measure, he suggested it was the jury’s patriotic duty to find the singer innocent.

The prosecution team, at a post-trial news conference, looked both stoic and shocked.

“Child pornography cases can be extremely difficult in many ways,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine, noting that the victims often do not consider themselves victims. “If we receive similar evidence today or tomorrow, we are going to bring that case.

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