WASHINGTON — American singer-songwriter and record producer R. Kelly’s sex trafficking trial is about to take its first significant step forward after several delays waylaid the process.
The lawyers for the R&B hitmaker’s case will begin jury selection on Aug. 16, 2021, in New York City, a full two years after he was charged with abusing women and girls for close to 20 years as his career allegedly shielded him from consequences.
A federal court judge in Brooklyn will question potential jurors about whether they can keep an open mind about Kelly amid immense public scrutiny brought on mainly by the #MeToo movement. A documentary series also shined a light on the singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, and his alleged illegal activities.
The proceeding will occur amid coronavirus pandemic precautions restricting the press and the public from overflowing courtrooms with video feeds. Kelly has been locked up since indicted in 2019, mostly housed in a federal jail in Chicago. He was moved last month to the federal Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn to face trial in a case that’s further tarnished his reputation as a singer.
The last two years behind bars have taken a toll on Kelly both physically and financially. Last week, defense attorney Devereaux Cannick told a judge that Kelly needs to be measured for new clothing because he’s gained so much weight in jail.
He even asked that court transcripts be provided at no cost because Kelly has been unable to work for two years, saying, “His funds are depleted.”
The Grammy-winning, singer has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of leading an enterprise of managers, bodyguards, and other employees who helped him recruit women and girls for sex.
Federal prosecutors say the group selected victims at concerts and other venues and arranged for them to travel to see Kelly.
Defense lawyers have said Kelly’s alleged victims were groupies who turned up at his shows and made it known they “were dying to be with him.”
They only started accusing him of abuse years later when public sentiment shifted in the #MeToo era, they said.
The trial had been expected to start earlier in the year. But opening statements were moved to Aug. 18, 2021, after Kelly fired his original defense team.
Jurors are expected to hear testimony from several of his accusers. A judge has ruled that their first names will only refer to the women.
Prosecutors have said the jury will also hear evidence that Kelly schemed with others to pay for a fake ID for Aaliyah, a singer on the rise at 15 years old, in a secret ceremony in 1994.
In court papers, Aaliyah has been identified as “Jane Doe #1” because she was still a minor when Kelly began a sexual relationship with her and believed she had become pregnant.
“As a result, to shield himself from criminal charges related to his illegal sexual relationship with Jane Doe #1, Kelly arranged to secretly marry her to prevent her from being compelled to testify against him in the future,” the papers reveal.
Aaliyah, whose full name was Aaliyah Dana Haughton, worked with Kelly, who wrote and produced her 1994 debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.” She died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22.
This case is only a tiny part of the peril being faced by the singer, and he has also not pleaded guilty to sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
The singer won multiple Grammy Awards for “I Believe I Can Fly,” a 1996 song that became an inspirational anthem played at school graduations, weddings, advertisements, and elsewhere.
Nearly a decade later, he began releasing what eventually became 22 musical chapters of “Trapped in the Closet,” a drama that spun a tale of sexual deceit and became a cult classic.
But Kelly has been trailed for decades by complaints and allegations about his sexual behavior, including a 2002 child pornography case in Chicago. He was acquitted in that case in 2008.
Hundreds of police officers and members of the community honored slain Chicago Police Officer Ella French on Monday night on the city’s southwest side.
French, 29, was fatally shot on Saturday night, Aug. 7, during a traffic stop. Her partner, also a member of the Chicago Police Department’s Community Safety Team, was hospitalized in critical condition. The man, who was not named, was said to be “fighting for his life.”
“Tonight in the 6300 block of South Bell, 10th District & Community Safety Team officers organized a prayer service and balloon release in loving memory of fallen Officer Ella French. #NeverForget,” the Chicago Police Department posted on Twitter, with photos, on Monday night.
“We will continue on in your honor Officer French,” the department tweeted.
“Officer Ella French was murdered by cowards while conducting a traffic stop with her partners. We lost a sister in blue. Today, Ella’s family, friends, and fellow officers mourn and our hearts go out to them. What an incredible loss for this city, state, and the entire nation,” the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police — Chicago Lodge 7 tweeted on Monday night.
Two brothers have been charged in French’s death.
Emonte Morgan, aka Monte Morgan, 21, is charged with first degree murder of a peace officer, attempted first degree murder of a peace officer (two counts), aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, and unlawful use of a weapon by a felon, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Eric Morgan, 22, is charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, unlawful use of a weapon by a felon, and obstruction of justice for his role in the alleged crime, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said.
Police allege that Emonte Morgan shot and killed French and shot her partner three times. Eric Morgan, police allege, drove the car that officers had pulled over because it had expired tags.
Both men were ordered held without bail on Tuesday.
LOS ANGELES — Disgraced Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of rape and sexual assault. He made his first court appearance in Los Angeles on July 21.
Weinstein appeared in a wheelchair in the courtroom, with his hands shackled to the armrests, while wearing a rumpled dark brown jumpsuit.
Weinstein was extradited from New York on July 20 and is currently being held at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
“I and My Sisters have been waiting for this day. It would not have happened without the courage and sacrifice of all the Silence Breakers who have used their voices in the name of justice and the deep desire to change the world for all survivors,” tweeted actress Caitlin Dulany on July 20.
Weinstein’s attorney, Mark Werksman, asked for a medical evaluation during the hearing. Werksman also said he would file a demurrer, challenging three of the 11 counts on statute of limitations grounds.
The three counts involve rape and sexual assault allegations dating from 2004-05, and a sexual battery charge from 2010.
“Weinstein is extradited to California to face 11 counts that carry up to 140 years in prison. Although he’s already sentenced to 23 years in New York, let’s hope a California jury ensures this predator never leaves a cell,” tweeted legal analyst Adrienne Lawrence.
Outside court, Werksman said the charges should be thrown out because they are too old to prosecute, and he said that “they are not corroborated by any scientific evidence.”
“He absolutely, unequivocally, and categorically denies the allegations in this case,” said Werksman. “We are confident that if we can have a fair trial, Weinstein will be acquitted.”
Prosecutors have said they are ready to proceed to trial within 120 days, though pre-trial motions appear likely to extend that timetable.
Weinstein was convicted in New York of rape and sexual assault in February 2020 and later sentenced to 23 years in prison. His attorneys appealed against that conviction and said that the judge made a series of faulty rulings that denied Weinstein a fair trial.
Weinstein faces allegations from five women dating from 2004 to 2013 in the Los Angeles case. He faces a theoretical maximum of 140 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
In the case, a previously sealed indictment has been announced by the Los Angeles prosecutors, though the existence of the indictment was already known due to legal wrangling in New York.
The Los Angeles trial has already been delayed repeatedly due to the Covid-19 slowdown in the court system. The courts have now resumed holding criminal trials, though there remains a significant backlog of cases.
Weinstein’s attorneys had been fighting the extradition since April, arguing that prosecutors had failed to submit the proper paperwork and that Weinstein needed treatment at the Wende Correctional Facility, near Buffalo, New York, for eye ailments to keep from going blind.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office have assured that Weinstein can get adequate medical care while being held at the Twin Towers facility.
Assuming the New York conviction is not overturned, as per a media report, Weinstein would be sent back to New York to serve the balance of his sentence following the Los Angeles trial.
Georgina Chapman and Weinstein finalized their divorce recently. The final order of divorce was signed by a judge in New York City on July 8, 2021.
WASHINGTON — In a push to develop carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology, legislation outlining such measures has been included in a larger Energy Infrastructure Act approved by a bipartisan U.S. Senate committee.
The infrastructure bill, including 48 amendments, cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), by a 13-7 vote on July 14. It would invest $100 billion in a broad range of energy technologies and initiatives.
“If the world wants less carbon in the atmosphere while preserving jobs, the answer is sequestering carbon,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), co-sponsor of the carbon capture bill with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
“This bill represents the largest government investment in CCUS infrastructure in U.S. history,” a press release from Cassidy’s office states.
The Storing CO2 and Lowering Emissions (SCALE) Act aims to build a network of carbon capture facilities, transport pipelines and geological storage locations, its sponsors said. It also proposes: flexible, low-interest loans for CO2 infrastructure construction, development of saline geologic carbon storage systems, and increased funding for Environmental Protection Agency grants to state and local governments for carbon capture projects.
“If passed and signed into law, the SCALE Act will help develop CCUS infrastructure as a critical means of reducing emissions of CO2 — or carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas — while creating regional economic opportunities and thousands of jobs. ” Coons said in a press release.
President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has set a goal of a 50-52 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas pollution from 2005 levels in 2030.
Carbon dioxide gas captured from fossil fuel emissions can be stored in underground geologic formations — primarily saline formations — or depleted or nearly depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and coal seams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Carbon capture, transport and storage via geological sequestration from stationary sources of CO2 (such as refineries, and coal-fired electric, ethanol, cement and fertilizer plants) could allow continued use of fossil fuels in a manner that greatly reduces CO2 emissions until alternative energy sources are deployed on a large scale in the coming decades,” the EPA states.
Some environmental groups vigorously oppose carbon capture. They say it is only partly effective and will encourage more fossil fuel use over longer periods. In March, 300 environmental organizations, led by Friends of the Earth, wrote to members of Congress urging them not to support “false solutions” for the energy transition.
“Technological carbon capture applied to high-emitting sources like petrochemical or fossil fuel power plants acts as a license to continuing polluting,” the letter said. “The technology does not eliminate source emissions; even if it worked perfectly, it would at best reduce them. But the benefit of these emission reductions is undermined by the additional emissions generated from the CCS process itself.”
The nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, which advocates to “ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild,” has supported carbon capture technology as a bridge for the energy transition.
Carbon capture storage, “is a way to capture carbon dioxide pollution that would otherwise be emitted by the fossil-fueled power plants and industries we still have, and permanently bury that pollution underground,” the NRDC states.
“The scale and urgency of climate change demand that we also do everything possible to cut the dangerous carbon pollution from any fossil fuels that are used,” the NRDC posted in 2018.
Ernest Moniz, former Energy Secretary in the Obama administration and now president and CEO of the nonprofit Energy Futures Initiative, is promoting a plan the group developed with the AFL-CIO and other labor groups.
The plan, “Building to Net Zero,” forecasts that a carbon capture and storage network could prevent a gigaton of emissions of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of taking 200 million cars off the road.
Referring to Biden’s greenhouse gas reduction goal, Moniz said, “Boy do we need to ramp things up. We need to pick up the pace.,”
U.S. Energy Department support
The U.S. Department of Energy last September invested $72 million in carbon capture technologies. In May this year, the agency put about $4 million toward four research and development projects “to design new methods to identify and reduce the risk of seismic disruptions and CO2 leakage in underground carbon dioxide storage facilities.”
“We’ve got strong champions from the left and from the right and from the center on carbon capture,” said David Turk, Deputy Secretary of Energy, during an event in June hosted by the Energy Futures Initiative.
The gulf coasts of Texas and Louisiana are the prime areas for development with 171 gigatons of CO2 storage available, the Energy Futures Initiative plan states. Wyoming and the Ohio River Valley also have geological areas that are ideal for CO2 storage, it says.
Other areas with significant storage capacity include Alaska and the Rocky Mountains-Northern Great Plains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
A July 2021 study by the University of Texas-Austin supports the carbon storage potential of the Texas and Louisiana coasts, citing the region’s high concentration of industry and unique offshore geology.
“Advancing carbon capture and storage is something that we can do now,” said Timothy “Tip” Meckel, a senior research scientist at the Gulf Coast Carbon Center. The research group at the university has been studying carbon capture and storage for two decades.
“This is a viable way to reduce emissions in the near term,” he said. “It’s feasible and has a reasonable economic structure that can support, retain and create jobs.”
Companies ready to participate
A natural gas provider based in Louisiana is one of the companies eyeing the potential of carbon capture and storage. Venture Global LNG, which exports liquefied natural gas overseas, is exploring ways to capture and store the CO2 it emits as part of its process.
“We don’t need new technology or funds; we’ll be able to do it as soon as the permitting process allows us,” Michael Sabel, the company’s founder and CEO, told a recent Reuters Global Energy Transition conference. He said the company’s plans would result in capturing CO2 equal to the emissions of 12 million cars.
At the same conference, Mike Train, chief sustainability officer at Emerson, an industrial solutions firm, said underground storage of hydrogen would also be a critical aspect of the energy transition, along with carbon capture and storage.
“My geology friends still have a big role to play looking for holes, whether that’s to store hydrogen or ultimately for carbon capture and sequestration. Those are big-use cases,” Train said.
A push by Senate Democrats to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level for the first time since it was effectively prohibited 84 years ago has little chance of succeeding, but cracks a door open for reform amid changing public opinion, experts told Zenger.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with Sen. Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Ron L. Wyden (D-Ore.) released draft legislation on July 14 to remove cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances and instead allow each state to decide its legality.
Proponents say they remain optimistic of it passing despite strong opposition from the GOP — and even from President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has opposed legalization.
“Stranger things have happened in American history than this passing,” said Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Strekal’s group is one of many advocacy groups that have applauded the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, which was designed to appeal to both progressive Democrats and “states rights” Republicans and is the first bill of its kind in the Senate.
In addition to removing all federal penalties on cannabis, Sen. Schumer’s bill would expunge all nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the federal books and allow people who are currently serving time for such crimes to petition for re-sentencing. It also includes grant programs to assist those negatively affected by criminalization.
However, the bill also explicitly allows states to prohibit marijuana, and includes funding to research public health concerns held by conservatives, such as alleged links to crime.
“This is monumental,” Sen. Schumer said at a press conference last week. “At long last, we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed War on Drugs.”
However, the Democrats, who introduced and successfully passed similar legislation in the House last year, are sure to face an uphill battle in passing the bill through the Senate.
Given the makeup of the chamber, Sen. Schumer, who pledged to make headway on the issue this term, would need to win all his 49 party colleagues as well as a further 10 Republicans to pass a 60-vote threshold when the bill is formally introduced in September.
That presents a huge challenge.
Republican voters are still far more wary than Democrats about marijuana legalization, even if the number of supporters has been steadily growing over the years.
In fact, 87 percent of adults who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning independents say either that cannabis should be legal for recreational and medical use (47 percent) or should be permitted only for medical purposes (a further 40 percent), according to a 2021 Pew Research poll.
Divides still exist within the GOP, though, with only 39 percent of “conservative” Republicans supporting legal recreational and medical marijuana compared to 60 percent of “moderate” or “liberal” Republicans. Additionally, while 63 percent of GOP voters aged 18 to 29 favor legalizing cannabis for either use, only 27 percent of those 65 or older agree.
Still, even while Republican voters are starting to come around to the idea, GOP lawmakers have been slower to get on board. No Republican senators have endorsed Sen. Schumer’s proposal, even though a few have in the past indicated support for easing restrictions.
Sen. Cory S. Gardner (R-Colo.), for instance, was elected to Congress in 2014, in the same year that his state’s recreational marijuana industry was launched. Since then, he has been one of the largest conservative champions of cannabis on Capitol Hill, introducing several bills to ease restrictions and even convincing Trump not to meddle with legal states.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is another potential affirmative vote, as he has long advocated for marijuana reform, including cosponsoring the STATES Act, which aimed to let states craft their own cannabis policies, much like the Democratic Party’s bill now aims to do.
Others like Sens. Lisa A. Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Kevin J. Cramer (R-N.D.) have also in the past indicated an openness to considering removing federal marijuana penalties.
Hesitation from other Republicans to embrace the issue is two-fold, according to Trevor Burrus, a senior research fellow for constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.
“Some Republicans from southern states in particular could fear a backlash from voting for this bill. But it’s only really in the South that marijuana legalization on the federal level or on a state level is at all controversial or even unpopular,” Burrus told Zenger.
Voters in South Dakota also approved a legalization measure in November that is now held up before the courts. If it stands, its two GOP senators — Senate Minority Whip John R. Thune and Sen. Mike Rounds — would represent legal markets, too.
Burrus said this calculus should, on its face, make the bill seem almost passable.
“And so the question is, are ten Republican senators from the northeast or the northwest or the Midwest … going to really suffer electoral backlash from this?” he said. “How much can they really suffer electoral consequences from voting for marijuana legalization on a federal level when it does not mean that they’re voting for legalization on a state level?”
But a preference by legislators in Washington to “play it safe” by avoiding action where it’s not seen as absolutely necessary could still hold many back from voting, he added.
“You hope that the behavior of the legislator and the behavior of your electorate somewhat mirror each other, but I think that mostly it’s been that politicians in D.C. will not take a vote … if they don’t feel like they have to, on almost anything,” Burrus said.
“The question here is whether or not that equilibrium will change and some Republican senators might feel like they will have to take a vote.”
Even if GOP support is forthcoming, though, it faces a challenge from Democrats, too.
A handful of Senate Democrats have opposed legalization, such as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and would be unlikely to back this latest measure.
“We do not foresee it passing the Senate,” said Colton Grace, a representative for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group. “There have already been no less than six Democrats express their unwillingness to legalize marijuana, and Sen. Schumer needs every single Democrat plus at least ten Republicans to sign on this bill in order for it to pass. Knowing this, it’s not even a matter of getting Republicans on board.”
“Underscoring even further the point that legalization is not universally accepted among Democrats, President Biden has repeatedly made it clear he is not in support of this effort.”
It is unclear whether Biden would sign the bill into law if it ever passed Congress.
Even though he has come out in support of decriminalization, Biden remains a marijuana-legalization skeptic. White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently said she had not discussed with the president the latest proposed legislation from Sen. Schumer, which ultimately leaves the question of cannabis legalization up to each individual states.
In any case, with the 2022 midterms, and the GOP vying to win back Congress, around the corner, the legislation is going to struggle to get onto Biden’s desk in the first place.
The Biden administration has touted a series of major wins since the president took office in January, which have included reaching a deal with Republicans on an infrastructure package and signing into law a bipartisan coronavirus economic relief package. Republicans concerned about reelection and winning back power will be unwilling to hand the Democrats a legislative victory ahead of the midterms, Burrus noted.
“The other factor here is of course whether or not the overriding goal is to prevent Biden from having any wins before the midterm elections,” he said. “So, that could be what McConnell is telling the senators in the backroom, like, ‘Don’t give this to Biden. We’re going to take the Senate in 2022, and then we can do a compromise or wait until 2024.’”
“That kind of electoral calculus is always important,” he said.
BEIRUT — Lebanese protesters are getting busy these days. Almost a year since the August 4, 2020, explosion at a Beirut port killed 210 people and injured more than 6,000 others, the families of the many victims as well as the survivors still have not found justice.
Families of the victims now take to the streets every other day to demand accountability after the explosion. However, the Lebanese Parliament has shown reluctance to strip away immunity from officials and former ministers implicated in the deadly mismanagement of ammonium nitrate that started the blast and forcibly displaced 300,000 people.
Protesters gathered in front of the Ministry of Justice on July 14 demanding justice for their dear ones. Relatives, parents, and friends, showed up with photo frames of the people who lost their lives during the explosions. The relatives spoke out about how their quest for justice has been hampered by a corrupted political system in Lebanon.
For the protestors, the politicians are trying to avoid accountability for the blast.
“We are here to protest against politicians who don’t want to lift immunity. We are here to support the families of the Beirut port explosion’s victims. I came here to protest to say that we are all one family. Politicians don’t know what is humanity,” demonstrator Muhammad Roustum, 40, who led some of the chants during the protests, told Zenger.
Following speeches, protesters cut off roads near the ministry by setting fire to car tires, causing a temporary traffic jam. Some stopped the cars and forced them to back away.
Unlike the previous days, when Lebanese riot police clashed with families of Beirut port blast, police officers allowed them to protest in the middle of the street.
The protestors are not only demanding justice for the Beirut port victims, they have also been outspoken about the government’s handling of economic crisis that started in 2019. The collapse led the Lebanese currency to lose around 90 percent of its value.
It also left more than half of Lebanon’s population trapped in poverty.
“Everything changed after the economic crisis,” Roustum said.
“We have no fuel, no medicine, no milk for kids. Politicians don’t know what politics is. They know politics only for robbing people. We came here to demand a fair life. We don’t want a situation like a war. Our government doesn’t care about humans but themselves.”
When asked if this situation may change with the next election scheduled later this year, Roustum cried out that there was no longer any more time to wait for change.
“We cannot wait for elections. How can we live for one year in this situation? Kids are dying. Some days ago, a kid on oxygen support died in Tripoli after his machine stopped working and generators were turned off due to the shortage of diesel,” he said.