R&B star R Kelly will be back in a criminal court on Wednesday, this time for opening statements in his long-anticipated federal trial arising from years of allegations that he sexually abused women and girls while pursuing fame and fortune.
More than a decade has passed since 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 received wide exposure through 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 are 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.
Defence 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 have been sworn in to hear the case. The trial, coming after several delays due mostly to the pandemic, will unfold 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.