The R&B singer R. Kelly was a “predator” who used his celebrity status to lure victims to be abused, a prosecutor said in opening statements of his federal trial in New York Wednesday, calling him the center of a criminal enterprise that operated for decades.
“This case is about a predator,” Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez said in the Brooklyn courtroom. “A man who, for decades, used his fame, his popularity and a network of people at his disposal to target girls, boys and young women for his own sexual gratification.”
Kelly’s defense attorney, in contrast, told jurors that many of the charges against him are “overreaching” and that many of the relationships Kelly had were consensual.
“These women, these witnesses who take the stand – he didn’t recruit them,” defense attorney Nicole Blank Becker said in her opening statements. “Ladies and gentlemen, you will hear that they were fans, that they came to Mr. Kelly.”
The singer, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering and violating the Mann Act, an anti-sex trafficking law. Prosecutors hope to convince jurors that Kelly was the leader of a criminal “enterprise” made up of people who served as the singer’s managers, bodyguards, drivers, personal assistants, runners and members of his entourage.
“The purposes of the Enterprise were to promote R. Kelly’s music and the R. Kelly brand and to recruit women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity with Kelly,” reads one of the Brooklyn federal indictments.
In court Wednesday, Kelly wore a gray suit and glasses, listened, took notes and occasionally spoke with a defense lawyer.
Kelly was able to be seen by media and members of the public only through a small, grainy video feed in an overflow courtroom. Only jurors, Kelly, witnesses, and attorneys who are part of the case are permitted inside the courtroom where the trial is underway, per judge’s orders, due in part to Covid-19 restrictions.
The opening statements represent a precipitous fall for the 54-year-old Grammy-winning entertainer who, after touring the world for decades, has spent the last two years in federal facilities in Illinois and New York awaiting trial. Separately from this case, Kelly faces federal child pornography and obstruction charges in the Northern District of Illinois, and faces state charges there for multiple counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
He was previously acquitted in a 2008 trial for state child pornography charges in Illinois.
Kelly’s trial is just the latest high-profile test of the #MeToo movement, the broader societal recognition of the ways men can use their power to sexually abuse, harass and silence victims. Long-simmering allegations against Kelly were laid out in a 2017 BuzzFeed article and the January 2019 Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” both of which led to a renewed criminal investigation.
Now, facing decades in prison if convicted of the most serious charges, Kelly has spent the last few months shuffling his legal team and attempting to prepare for the trial while struggling because of his illiteracy, his lawyers have said. The singer’s funds have been “depleted,” defense attorney Deveraux Cannick told the court at a hearing earlier this month.
Prosecution, defense lay out their cases
Kelly is facing multiple counts, including racketeering with underlying charges that include the sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping, and sex trafficking women and girls.
In her opening statements, Melendez outlined evidence expected to be revealed over the course of the six-to-eight week trial, including DNA matching Kelly’s found from semen on a T-shirt an accuser wore when she was 16, travel records, and recordings of abuse. She also said multiple accusers are expected to testify, as well as former associates who worked with Kelly between the 1990s to 2018.
Melendez discussed six accusers whose allegations of abuse would be presented to jurors, including the late singer Aaliyah, who prosecutors said married Kelly when she was only 15 years old.
Melendez alleged that Kelly had a sexual relationship with Aaliayh when she was a minor, and that when he learned that she was pregnant while he was on tour, he flew back to Chicago in the middle of the night after he and his associates came up with a plan “that would keep him out of jail.”
Melendez said Kelly met Aaliyah in an airport hotel room, after an associate of Kelly’s allegedly bribed someone at a local public assistance office with $500 to create an ID for Aaliyah that made her appear to be 18.
“In that hotel suite, the defendant, a 27-year-old man, married Aaliyah, a 15-year-old girl,” Melendez said.
Melendez said testimony will show that Kelly “sexually, physically and psychologically abused” multiple women and girls, often isolating them from friends and family.
One accuser, Melendez said, went to Kelly’s studio for an interview she’d set up with him and was kept locked in a room against her will. Melendez said the woman believes she was drugged by someone and raped by Kelly.
Melendez also said Kelly recorded many of his sexual encounters and that he kept a stash of sex videos not only for his own use but also “if he needed to protect himself by threatening their exposure.”
After Melendez finished, Kelly’s defense sought to reframe the nature of the singer’s relationships.
“You are also going to hear that some of these relationships that Mr. Kelly had were beautiful,” said Becker, his defense attorney. “They knew exactly what they were getting into and it was no secret that Mr. Kelly had multiple girlfriends.”
Becker conceded that jurors may see evidence that Kelly occasionally paid for travel or lodging for some of the accusers, but that these actions were not indicative of an “enterprise.”
A second chance at justice
For some of R. Kelly’s accusers, including those who saw his acquittal in 2008, the start of his federal trial in New York is a long-awaited second chance at justice.
Gerald Griggs, an Atlanta-based attorney, represents several accusers and their families who he said are part of cases in other districts. He said these accusers, some of whom he is not naming at this time, fear further attempts to obstruct justice by Kelly and his associates.
“They’re understandably nervous but they’ve been focused on getting justice for a long time so they’re ready,” Griggs told CNN. “There’s definitely that fear of enablers doing things to try to obstruct justice. But we’re confident in the evidence and we’re confident in the jury.”
Weighing on some accusers’ minds are allegations that Kelly and his associates obstructed justice surrounding his 2008 trial, which centered on a sexually explicit video that prosecutors said showed Kelly and a minor. According to prosecutors, the minor ultimately said she did not have a sexual relationship with Kelly and that she was not the person in the video. She did not testify at the trial.
However, a federal indictment filed in Illinois in 2019 charges Kelly with persuading an unnamed minor to give false testimony to an Illinois federal grand jury in 2002.
Timothy and JonJelyn Savage, who say their estranged daughter Joycelyn still identifies herself as one of Kelly’s girlfriends, are represented by Griggs, who says they are associated with the Illinois federal case against Kelly.
While they aren’t part of Kelly’s New York case, they still want to see the trial take place.
“The upcoming trial to many may be a spectacle, but for us it’s the opportunity to find resolution,” the Savages said in a statement to CNN. “After five years of consistent fighting, mental breakdowns and dead ends to get our daughter back, it is our responsibility as parents to show up and be present for other mothers and fathers in similar circumstances to not give up hope. We are trusting the US Attorney’s Office alongside the justice system will be fair and honest with the contents of this trial.”
CNN has reached out to an attorney for Joycelyn Savage for comment. In a video published by TMZ in 2017 she said, “…I’m totally fine. I’m happy where I’m at and everything is OK with me.”
For those accusers who are expected to testify, it will likely be an unnerving experience.
Moira Penza knows what it’s like to prepare survivors to face and testify against their abuser. In 2019, the former federal prosecutor won a conviction against Keith Raniere, the leader of the cult-like group Nxivm, on racketeering and sex trafficking charges in the same courthouse where Kelly stands trial.
“It is still going to be one of the most harrowing experiences for any person who has been the victim of a crime, to get on the stand, have to relive the pain of what you experienced and then, when that’s done, literally have someone coming up and try and call you a liar and try to attack you,” Penza told CNN.
But, she says, accusers should feel confident that this federal case is different from the 2008 state trial that ended in Kelly’s acquittal.
“Having the RICO (racketeering) charge, in particular, allows prosecutors to really give this aerial view over a long period of time at a very high level of who R. Kelly and his enterprise are, and the types of crimes that they’ve been committing and the ways in which they’ve committed those crimes – that’s a very different case,” Penza said. “You have a lot more evidence that is going to come in and be able to corroborate what the victims are saying.”
What we may see at R. Kelly’s trial
There is a mountain of evidence that is expected to be presented at trial, including videos of alleged abuse and testimony from both victims and former associates of Kelly. Multiple charges allege that Kelly sexually abused underage girls and filmed those incidents in the years after his 2008 acquittal.
There are also former associates of Kelly – who pleaded guilty to crimes related to allegedly threatening or harassing Kelly’s accusers – who may be cooperating with the government. They include Richard Arline, who allegedly offered an unnamed witness $500,000 in May 2020 “in exchange for not continuing to cooperate with the government against Kelly,” according to a criminal complaint.
Arline pleaded guilty in February to one count of bribery and is expected to be sentenced at a later date. Prosecutors have not responded to requests for comment on whether he is expected to testify in Kelly’s New York trial. An attorney for Arline has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
“At no time did Mr. Kelly have anything to do with the actions Arline took,” defense attorney Thomas Farinella told CNN.
Prosecutors allege that Kelly had rules that many women and girls he had sex with had to follow. Some were not permitted to leave their room – even to go to the bathroom or eat – without getting permission from Kelly. Some were required to wear baggy clothing when they were not with Kelly, and were not allowed to look at other men.
“If you are isolating people, if you are not allowing them to use the bathroom without permission – these are things that completely drain you of any agency,” Penza told CNN.
But Penza said, for survivors of Kelly’s alleged abuse, being able to walk into federal court and testify against him may finally give them their power back.
CNN’s Eric Levenson contributed to this report.