What to Know
- Former R&B superstar R. Kelly's long-anticipated criminal sex trial got underway Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court
- Prosecutors in Brooklyn have lined up multiple female accusers — mostly referred to in court as “Jane Does” — and cooperating former associates who have never spoken publicly on Kelly before
- An anonymous jury made up of seven men and five women was sworn in to hear the case. The trial, coming after several delays due mostly to the pandemic, unfolds under COVID precautions
A prosecutor described sex abuse claims against R&B star R. Kelly Wednesday, saying the long-anticipated trial now underway is “about a predator" who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically for at least three decades.
“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot," Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the Brooklyn jury as she explained the evidence to be revealed at his federal trial.
"This case is about a predator, a man for decades used his fame and popularity and network of people at his disposal to target girls, boys and young women," she said.
She said he invited children and women to join him after shows by distributing backstage passes, paying for travel and using ever tool in the "predator handbook" to bend them to his will. Kelly allegedly groomed his victims and isolated them, forced them to ask permission for the most basic activities and spanked them when they didn't comply, Melendez said.
She described young girls being locked in rooms for days by a man who made them call him "Daddy" as part of his meticulous indoctrination.
Melendez said Kelly would often record sex acts with minors as he controlled a racketeering enterprise of individuals who were loyal and devoted to him, eager to “fulfill each and everyone one of the defendant’s wishes and demands."
“What his success and popularity brought him was access, access to girls, boys and young women,” she said.
But Kelly’s attorney, Nicole Blank Becker, portrayed her client as a victim of women, some of whom enjoyed the “notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they were with a superstar.”
“He didn’t recruit them. They were fans. They came to Mr. Kelly,” she said, urging jurors to closely scrutinize the testimony. “They knew exactly what they were getting into. It was no secret Mr. Kelly had multiple girlfriends. He was quite transparent.”
It would be a stretch to believe he orchestrated an elaborate criminal enterprise, like a mob boss, the lawyer said.
The defense attorney said that several of the witnesses -- some of whom were underage during the alleged incidents -- were not only liars but also "have an agenda" that involves writing books and going on talk shows. The defense attorney said that some of the witnesses will "crumble on the stand," and that "the government won't be able to untangle the mess of lies."
“Don’t assume everybody’s telling the truth,” she said.
The openings came more than a decade after Kelly was acquitted in a 2008 child pornography case in Chicago. It was a reprieve that allowed his music career to continue until the #MeToo era caught up with him, emboldening alleged victims to come forward.
The women's stories got wide exposure with the Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly." The series explored how an entourage of supporters protected Kelly and silenced his victims for decades, foreshadowing a federal racketeering conspiracy case that landed in Kelly in jail in 2019.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn have lined up multiple female accusers — mostly referred to in court as “Jane Does” — and cooperating former associates who have never spoken publicly before about their experiences with Kelly.
They're expected to offer testimony about how Kelly's managers, bodyguards and other employees helped him recruit women and girls — and sometimes boys — for sexual exploitation. They say the group selected victims at concerts and other venues and arranged for them to travel to see Kelly in the New York City area and elsewhere, in violation of the Mann Act, the 1910 law that made it illegal to “transport any woman or girl” across state lines “for any immoral purpose."
When the women and girls arrived at their lodgings, a member of Kelly’s entourage would set down rules about not speaking to each other, how they should dress and how they needed permission from Kelly before eating or going to the bathroom, prosecutors say. Also, they allegedly were required to call him “Daddy.”
Defense lawyers have countered by saying Kelly’s alleged victims were groupies who turned up at his shows and made it known they “were dying to be with him.” The women only started accusing him of abuse years later when public sentiment shifted against him, they said.
Kelly, 54, is perhaps best known for his smash hit “I Believe I Can Fly,” a 1996 song that became an inspirational anthem played at school graduations, weddings, advertisements and elsewhere.
An anonymous jury made up of seven men and five women was sworn in to hear the case. The trial, coming after several delays due mostly to the pandemic, unfolds under coronavirus precautions restricting the press and the public to overflow courtrooms with video feeds.
The New York case is only part of the legal peril facing the singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly. He also has pleaded not guilty to sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.