R. Kelly Trial Opens: ‘This Case Is About a Predator’
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
The R&B star is on trial after years of delays. He is accused of commanding a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls to have sex with him.
via New York Times - In the world of R&B music, R. Kelly long stood above his peers, reaching stardom on the strength of his slow jams and the allure of his uncommonly provocative lyrics.
But in a courtroom in Brooklyn on Wednesday, where the singer is facing charges that accuse him of commanding a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls to have sex with him, prosecutors outlined some of the accusations that have followed Mr. Kelly for decades.
“This case is about a predator,”
Maria Cruz Melendez, an assistant U.S. attorney, told the jury during an opening statement in Mr. Kelly’s long-awaited and closely watched trial. Ms. Cruz Melendez outlined Mr. Kelly’s interactions with six women and girls, starting with his former wife, the singer Aaliyah, who was 15 when she and Mr. Kelly were married.
Five others, who she referred to by first name only — Stephanie, Sonia, Jerhonda, Zell and Faith — were between 16 and 22 when Mr. Kelly preyed upon them, Ms. Cruz Melendez said.
Prosecutors have said that two of the women appeared in the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” and two have never spoken publicly about their allegations. Three were underage when their encounters with Mr. Kelly began.
Several of the women are expected to testify during the trial, prosecutors have said — a significant change from Mr. Kelly’s only previous criminal trial, in 2008, when he was acquitted of child pornography charges. Prosecutors are seeking to convince the jury that Mr. Kelly, 54, and those in his orbit built a decades-long system of sexual abuse. His defense team will seek to cast doubt on the accounts and motivations of the women at the center of the case, as jurors grapple with matters of consent, autonomy and sexual agency.
The trial has been highly anticipated since Mr. Kelly’s sexual conduct came under fresh scrutiny during the height of the #MeToo movement. His long-delayed trial follows several similar high-profile cases over sexual misconduct accusations, including the trials of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the comedian and actor Bill Cosby.
But Mr. Kelly’s trial also stands apart. In Mr. Weinstein’s case, which touched off a national reckoning around sexual abuse, many of the women who came forward were actresses and models, and were mostly white — as were many of those at the center of accusations in the most prominent cases across business, politics, media and entertainment.
The majority of Mr. Kelly’s accusers are Black women.
“I do think it matters a lot — that this is the first high-profile #MeToo-era trial where the accusers, for the most part, aren’t white women,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at Northwestern University and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
“If you take these kinds of accusers who have traditionally been most dismissed, most disregarded, most cast aside — and those women are able to be believed and have jurors care enough to convict, that matters,” Ms. Tuerkheimer said. “And that would send a powerful message.”
One night in 1994 while he was on tour and about to take the stage, Ms. Cruz Melendez said, one of Mr. Kelly’s associates told him that Aaliyah believed she may have been pregnant.
“This was, of course, a huge problem for him,” Ms. Cruz Melendez said. “If she was pregnant that meant there would be questions: At the very top of that list of questions — who is the father of that baby.”
He and his associates flew to Chicago to meet Aaliyah late one night, she said, and “got to work.” He bribed a government employee in Illinois to obtain a fake ID for her, and in a hotel suite, he married her, Ms. Cruz Melendez said.
Then, she said, he caught a flight and returned to finish his tour.
The judge also ruled Wednesday that the jury would hear the details of settlement agreements regarding accusations that Mr. Kelly knowingly gave two women herpes in 2001, as well as evidence that he gave the sexually transmitted disease to a minor in 1995.
Another young singer, identified in court as Zell, met the singer at one of his concerts when she was 17, Ms. Cruz Melendez said; Mr. Kelly was 48 at the time. Throughout the concert, he paid extra attention to her, singing some of his songs directly to her.
Zell was already a serious singer, performing in a choir and getting paid for gigs. She thought Mr. Kelly could help her career, Ms. Cruz Melendez said, so when his assistant gave her his number, she called him.
He told her to swing by the hotel where he was staying. In a van outside, he instructed her to sit on his lap and give him a kiss, and then he invited her up to his hotel room, Ms. Cruz Melendez said.
She agreed to meet him there, hoping to sing for him. But before she could sing, the prosecutor recounted, he said “he needed to relieve himself.” Zell knew he meant sexually. He begged to have sex with her, eventually saying that if she agreed, he would take care of her for the rest of her life. Eventually, she submitted. And, the prosecutor said, “Eventually, she got to sing for the defendant.”
Mr. Kelly, prosecutors said, promised her parents that he could help push her career, even “telling her she’d be the next Aaliyah.”
Instead, Zell contracted herpes from the singer, the prosecutor said.
By the time she was a senior in high school, Zell, who had at first lied about her age, told Mr. Kelly that she was just 17.
“Did he end it? No.” the prosecutor told the jury. “He suggested that she do her senior year remotely and live with him.”
Mr. Kelly soon became psychologically abusive, Ms. Cruz Melendez said. He told Zell to call him “Daddy” and prohibited her from doing even small tasks without his authorization. When she disobeyed, he violently beat her, calling them “chastisements,” which for a period of time he doled out on a daily basis.
Sometimes, when she failed to obey him, the singer forced her to have sex with a man she had never met; other times, he locked her in a room for days.
The prosecutor also described physical and psychological violence that she said the accusers suffered at the hands of Mr. Kelly, who on multiple occasions made it clear to the young women that he did not care if they were underage.
When Jerhonda, then 16, showed the singer her ID, “He shrugged it off,” the prosecutor said. “He asked her, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’”
In one instance, Mr. Kelly ushered Faith, then 19, into a small room and ordered her to strip, Ms. Cruz Melendez said. She spotted a gun in the room, and complied when Mr. Kelly ordered her to perform a sex act on him. Later, when she filed a lawsuit against the singer, his staff threatened to release compromising photos of her.
The singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, has staunchly denied all of the accusations against him.
“At this point, the public has only heard one side of the story in this case and that is about to change in the coming weeks,” one of Mr. Kelly’s lawyers, Thomas A. Farinella, said in a statement on Tuesday.
He added that the racketeering charge against his client was “based on a series of independent relationships and events that the government is trying to patch together like different types of fabrics and trying to pass it off as silk.”
Outside the courthouse on Wednesday morning, fans of Mr. Kelly had scribbled messages of support, like “Free R. Kelly” and “Honey Love,” the name of one of his songs while he was in the R&B group Public Service Announcement.
The trial may not be the final chapter in the decades-long trail of murmurs and accusations of criminal behavior by Mr. Kelly. He also faces a trial in Chicago on federal charges, and additional state sex crime charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
Among those arriving at the courthouse on Wednesday were the parents of Mr. Kelly’s ex-girlfriend Jocelyn Savage. They were among a group who helped expose Mr. Kelly’s interactions with women and encouraged others to speak out.
Ms. Savage, who was Mr. Kelly’s girlfriend at the time of his arrest, had spoken up in the R&B singer’s defense in an interview with Gayle King in 2019. But in an unverified post on the website Patreon later that year, she said that Mr. Kelly had been controlling and abusive during their relationship.
Ms. Savage’s role in the trial is not totally clear. She is currently listed as a potential witness for the defense.
On Wednesday, her parents said they were hopeful about the trial that they had sought for so long.
“It started a long time ago and we have to finish it,” Ms. Savage’s father, Timothy Savage, said in an interview outside the courthouse. “We want to make sure that we have justice for these victims.”