A reckoning that stems from over two decades of allegations of sexual abuse and the manipulation of minors could be coming to a head as R&B singer R. Kelly goes to federal court in New York this month.
Kelly, 54, has been accused of using his fame and power to lure and sexually abuse dozens of minors, often separating them from their families and promising to turn them into stars. This includes his 1994 annulled marriage to the late singer Aaliyah Haughton, who was 15 when Kelly’s team allegedly obtained a fake ID for her in order for them to marry; he was 27 at the time.
The music industry has long ignored these allegations of sexual abuse, even when Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography in 2002. The case took more than five years to go to trial, and Kelly was acquitted in 2008. He continued to perform and make music during and after the trial. The singer has also settled outside of court with accusers and their families on numerous occasions.
In July 2017, activists turned public attention back to Kelly’s alleged wrongdoings with the #MuteRKelly movement created by Oronike Odeleye. The petition and hashtag gained traction on social media and led to Kelly’s radio play plummeting. He was also dropped by his record label, RCA.
More accusers shared their stories in the explosive six-part 2019 docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which reported on the singer’s pattern of alleged abuse and the culture that enabled him and left him untouchable for decades. “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning” followed in 2020.
In February 2019, Kelly was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault in Chicago. In July of that year, he was arrested and indicted again, this time on federal charges that included enticement of a minor, obstruction of justice and child pornography. That same day, Brooklyn prosecutors indicted him on racketeering charges.
The trial, which has been delayed for at least two years partly due to the coronavirus pandemic, will be the second criminal case against Kelly. He was being held in a Chicago prison, where he’s facing separate charges of sexually abusing minors, but was transferred to Brooklyn ahead of his court hearings. Here’s what you need to know about Kelly’s trial.
When does the trial begin?
Kelly’s trial technically began on Monday, Aug. 9, when jury selection started. Opening statements from prosecutors — Elizabeth Geddes, Maria Cruz Melendez and Nadia Shihata — and Kelly’s attorneys — Thomas Farinella, Nicole Blank Becker, Deveraux Cannick and Calvin Scholar — start on Aug. 18. U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly will preside over the trial.
Where is the trial?
The trial will take place at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn.
What is Kelly charged with?
Kelly is facing nine federal charges: one count of racketeering, and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits sexual trafficking across state lines. Specifically, prosecutors say Kelly participated in “the coercion and transportation of women and girls in interstate commerce to engage in illegal sexual activity.”
The racketeering charge is somewhat unusual given that Kelly’s case centers on sexual abuse of minors. Prosecutors, however, say they’re charging Kelly with racketeering because the R&B singer and his entourage — including managers, bodyguards, personal assistants and drivers — acted like a criminal enterprise or an organized crime unit. Prosecutors allege Kelly and his entourage used the singer’s fame and power to recruit underage girls so that Kelly could abuse them, including creating sexual abuse images and enslaving women across the country.
“By promoting R. Kelly’s music and the R. Kelly brand, the members of the Enterprise expected to receive financial opportunities and personal benefits, including increased power and status within the Enterprise,” prosecutors wrote in the indictment.
The racketeering charge is a much broader indictment that will allow prosecutors to bring in a plethora of evidence dating back decades. Prosecutors will likely try to show that as Kelly’s career and stardom grew, so did his criminal enterprise that enabled his alleged abuse of children.
It’s a creative — albeit difficult — charge to throw at Kelly. The racketeering statute, also known by the acronym RICO, is usually applied to cases involving organized crime like the mafia. The charge allows prosecutors to present the jury with decades of evidence, but proving Kelly and his entourage amounted to a criminal enterprise may be a harder hill to climb for prosecutors. The most recent application of this statute that closest resembles Kelly’s charge is the NXIVM case. That case involved a cult-like group whose leader, Keith Raniere, sexually abused women under the guise of practicing self-help. Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison on charges including racketeering and sex trafficking.
Kelly was arrested in July 2019 after he was indicted on 18 federal charges including allegations of creating sexual abuse images of children, kidnapping and trafficking of minors, in Chicago and New York. The R&B singer pleaded not guilty to all 18 charges, including the nine in Brooklyn. He was in Chicago’s downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center without bond since his arrest. In June, he was transferred to a prison in Brooklyn where he awaited trial.
If convicted on all charges in New York, Kelly faces up to 80 years in prison.
Who are the accusers in the case?
Prosecutors plan to introduce evidence involving at least 19 women, seven of whom were under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged sexual abuse. Additionally, prosecutors have said they will introduce new evidence that Kelly sexually abused a 17-year-old boy he met at a McDonald’s in 2006.
Kelly is accused of several abuses, including enslaving underage girls and women in his tour bus and hotel rooms, physically abusing them as punishment, withholding food and water from them for days and blackmailing them with sexual photos.
Aaliyah Haughton, the singer who died in a plane crash in 2001, is central to the charges. Kelly and Haughton, referred to as Jane Doe #1 in the indictment, married in 1994, when Haughton was 15 years old. The indictment alleges that someone in Kelly’s entourage bribed an Illinois state employee to create a fake ID for Haughton, falsely showing that she was 18 so Kelly, then 27, could marry her. Prosecutors will likely use Haughton’s story to show how Kelly’s enterprise helped recruit children for Kelly to sexually abuse, while also showing a pattern of sexual abuse of minors at the hands of the R&B singer.
Prosecutors will likely bring up several other past instances in which Kelly allegedly coerced children using his fame as a singer and sexually abused them. Jane Doe #2 met Kelly when one of Kelly’s team members approached her in a fast food restaurant in 1999, according to the indictment. Kelly is accused of filming him and the 16-year-old girl having sex multiple times, creating video of child sexual abuse.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of charges Kelly is facing. He faces eight counts of violating the Mann Act, not four.