R. Kelly's Trial Has Begun. The Singer Faces Decades Of Sex Abuse Charges

Aug 18, 2021
Originally published on August 18, 2021 3:23 pm

Updated August 18, 2021 at 4:56 PM ET

Editor's note: This report includes allegations of sexual and physical abuse.

Testimony has started as Day 1 of R. Kelly's federal trial winds down.

Kelly is being accused of a wide array of crimes: sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, kidnapping, forced labor and sexual trafficking across state lines. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Melendez called Kelly a "predator," telling the jury that he was "a man who used his fame, popularity and the individuals at his disposal to target and groom girls, boys and young women for his sexual gratification."

Kelly's defense lawyer, Nicole Blank Becker, is attempting to position the accusers as liars who were in consensual long-term relationships with Kelly. "They're going to tell you Mr. Kelly is this monster. You're also going to hear that some of these relationships were beautiful," said Becker.

Among the accusers, Jerhonda Johnson Pace was the first to testify. In 2017 Pace told Buzzfeed News that she met Kelly as a teenager, skipping school to attend Kelly's 2008 trial in which he was cleared of child pornography charges. She largely repeated the story in court, testifying that she had sexual relationship with Kelly, even after she revealed to him that she was underage. Pace was also heavily featured in the 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly, where she detailed what her life was like living with R. Kelly.

Kelly was once hailed as the "king of R&B," a hitmaker for himself and for collaborators who ranged from Celine Dion to Justin Bieber. He's been held in custody since July 2019, awaiting the start of his New York trial. (A second federal trial in Illinois on separate charges of child pornography and obstruction will follow.) The lengthy delays in New York were due to the pandemic, superseding charges issued by both sets of prosecutors and rounds of shuffling on his defense team.

The jurors, who will remain anonymous and partially sequestered throughout the proceedings, include seven men and five women. The trial is expected to last about a month. Continued coronavirus precautions at the Brooklyn courthouse where the trial is taking place mean that the press and the public are being restricted to overflow courtrooms outfitted with video and audio feeds.

The federal prosecutors in New York are structuring their case similar to that of an organized crime case. The charges include racketeering — that is, that Kelly allegedly ran a criminal enterprise whose explicit purpose was "to prey upon young women and teenagers," and that he was allegedly aided by managers, gofers, and others in his entourage — as well as sexually trafficking the girls and women across state lines.

The New York charges include six alleged victims — including the singer Aaliyah, Kelly's former protégée, whom he married in 1994, when she was 15 and he was 27. The government is also hoping to have the jurors hear and see what they say is evidence of other, uncharged criminal offenses committed by Kelly between 1991 and 2018. Those other allegations include 20 Jane Does and one teenaged John Doe.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The R&B star R. Kelly is in court today in Brooklyn, New York. Lawyers will give opening arguments in the first of his two scheduled federal trials.

We should warn you - this story includes allegations that some people will find disturbing, and it lasts about four minutes. If you need to go, don't worry; we'll still be here when you get back.

R. Kelly is facing charges of racketeering for the purpose of luring girls and young women, as well as sexually trafficking them across state lines. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas is covering the trial. Good morning.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should begin by noting, this is one of his trials.

TSIOULCAS: That's right. He's actually facing accusations from two separate sets of federal prosecutors, one in New York and one in Illinois. He was arrested back in July 2019, and he's been in custody ever since. And there was a lot of back-and-forthing (ph) - who should go first? Finally, it was decided New York would go first. But even after this trial ends, he'll face another set of federal charges, and he's pleaded not guilty to all the accusations and charges.

INSKEEP: OK, noting the not guilty plea, let's talk about the accusations first in this New York City trial.

TSIOULCAS: Right. The New York prosecutors are alleging that Kelly ran a criminal enterprise along the lines of the mob. In this case, the prosecutors say the mission of this enterprise was to, quote, "prey upon young women and teenagers." And that enterprise, they say, allegedly included sexually exploiting children, kidnapping and forced labor. And I should note, there are six alleged victims in the New York charges. Prosecutors also say that he bribed a public official to make a fake ID for his former protege, the singer Aaliyah. They were married in 1994, the day after the ID was made. He was 27, and she was just 15 years old.

INSKEEP: OK. And then there's the case in Chicago. How different is that?

TSIOULCAS: In the Illinois case, he's facing allegations of child pornography and obstruction. And some listeners may remember he was acquitted of child pornography charges in Chicago back in 2008. The Illinois prosecutors have accused him of actually obstructing justice in that trial, of intimidating and paying off witnesses, including the 14-year-old alleged victim.

INSKEEP: OK, so we've got these two different trials on somewhat related charges. I want to circle back to that phrase you used earlier - you said criminal enterprise. What would make these various acts a criminal enterprise, according to the prosecutors?

TSIOULCAS: Well, they're saying that he headed a whole circle of people, including an entourage of managers and handlers and publicists and gofers who aided him in this mission in various ways. The New York prosecutors are also trying to have other evidence admitted that they say shows that this was a long-established crime circle and not just an alleged individual predator. And that evidence includes abuse of 20 teenage girls and women over a very long span, 1991 to 2018, as well as alleged sexual abuse of a 17-year-old boy.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how do they keep the jury from being tainted by all the news coverage of this trial?

TSIOULCAS: So the judge has ordered the jurors anonymous and partially sequestered for the duration. And the judge, Ann Donnelly, has told the jurors repeatedly it's because of the intense media interest around this trial.

INSKEEP: Anastasia, thanks so much.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.

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