R. Kelly, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for racketeering and sex trafficking earlier this year, is standing trial in Chicago, in the next chapter of prosecutors’ efforts to hold him criminally responsible for allegations of sexual abuse dating back more than three decades.
The trial, in the city Kelly long called home, carries echoes from his first courtroom spectacle there in 2008, in which a jury acquitted him of producing child sexual abuse imagery.
This time, federal prosecutors are seeking to hold Kelly and his associates accountable for working to stymie the earlier trial. They are accusing Kelly and a former employee who is also on trial, Derrel McDavid, of arranging hush money payments and seeking to conceal evidence that would have aided prosecutors when they were investigating the singer in the early 2000s.
Kelly, 55, is facing charges that he coerced five minors into sex acts and several charges related to producing child sexual abuse imagery. He and McDavid are also facing charges of receiving child sexual abuse imagery, during what prosecutors have described as a scheme to recover missing tapes of Kelly having sex with minors.
A third man — another former employee of Kelly’s, Milton Brown — is facing a related charge. All three men have pleaded not guilty.
The trial will be an emotional moment for many in Chicago who have witnessed Kelly’s rise from a child of the city to a pop and R&B star, then his fall after he was accused of luring underage girls into his orbit.
“Chicago has always struggled with this because he is local, and we tend to go up for our locals,” said Mikki Kendall, a writer who grew up in the city and recalled, in the Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” seeing the adult singer approaching teenage girls at a local McDonald’s. “There are people who are going to be very upset and will again try to insist that the girls are at fault, and there are going to be people — and I am one of them — who are going to say 59,000 times: He is a grown man preying on very young women and children.”
The first public disclosure of abuse allegations came in a 1996 lawsuit, and a steady drip of legal claims and articles followed over the next two decades. The renewed effort to prosecute Kelly came in 2019, after the Lifetime documentary broadcast accounts of women who described being abused and controlled by him, oftentimes when they were teenagers.
One year ago, Kelly stood trial in New York, where a jury found him guilty of leading a decadeslong scheme to recruit women and underage girls for sex. He started serving his 30-year prison term in Brooklyn before he was transferred to a federal prison in Chicago for the current trial.
Over the trial, which started in August, prosecutors have asserted that Kelly had repeatedly sexually abused minors and that he did so with the protection of his associates. They showed jurors clips from three videos that they say show Kelly sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl — the same one at the center of the 2008 trial. (The defense has argued that the videos are of consenting adults.)
During closing arguments Monday, Elizabeth Pozolo, one of the prosecutors, pointed to testimony that Kelly and his associates had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to recover the videotapes, arguing that they would not have gone to such lengths if the tapes had been of consenting adults.
“Robert Kelly abused many girls over many years, he committed horrible crimes against children, and he didn’t do it alone,” Pozolo said. “All these years later, the hidden side of Robert Kelly has come to light.”
A lawyer for Kelly, Jennifer Bonjean, has argued that Kelly’s accusers and the key witnesses called by the prosecution came out against her client to profit financially or to gain protection from perjury and others charges. In her closing argument Tuesday, she sought to persuade the jury that inconsistencies in those witnesses’ accounts are reason enough to acquit Kelly.
“When you find a cockroach in the soup, you don’t just pull out the cockroach; you throw out the whole soup,” she said. “There are too many cockroaches in the testimony of many of these witnesses.”
Lawyers for McDavid have argued that he was just doing his job when he hired lawyers to handle settlements related to Kelly’s sex tapes — which, they argued, McDavid believed to involve adults, not minors. And lawyers for Brown described their client as an “assistant” and an “errand boy” for Kelly who was not aware of his behavior.
What happened in 2008?
The 2008 trial was a result of a 2002 grand jury indictment of Kelly on 21 counts of child pornography, which were later reduced to 14. The case took years to go to a jury. During that time, the singer debuted some of the biggest hits of his career, including “Ignition” and “Step in the Name of Love.”
The trial revolved around a 27-minute tape that prosecutors said showed Kelly having a sex with a teenage girl and urinating on her. The case hinged on whether the jury was convinced that the people in the tape were who the prosecutors said they were. Kelly and the young woman denied they were the ones on the tape, and neither testified in the trial.
A jury found Kelly not guilty on all charges, and after the verdict was released, jurors said the young woman’s refusal to testify was a significant barrier to convicting him.
How is that relevant to the current trial?
A portion of the trial has focused on charges that Kelly and his associate, David, conspired to obstruct the previous investigation by paying off people with knowledge of Kelly’s abuse and seeking to suppress evidence.
Prosecutors accuse Kelly of persuading the minor in the tape to deny to a grand jury in the early 2000s that she had a sexual relationship with Kelly and that it was her in the 27-minute video. According to the federal indictment, Kelly and McDavid arranged payments and bought gifts for the minor and her parents over a roughly 15-year period to prevent them from speaking to law enforcement about the abuse.
These hush money payments were part of a broader effort, prosecutors say, to hide evidence of Kelly’s sexual abuse from investigators.
In 2001, after state officials started investigating whether Kelly had been abusing the child at the center of the 2008 trial, Kelly and his associates realized that several videotapes of the singer sexually abusing her had gone missing, according to the indictment in the case. After that realization, Kelly and McDavid started a multiyear effort to reclaim those videos, hiring a man named Charles Freeman, who testified in the trial that he was hired to return tapes without knowing exactly what was on them.
Around the time of the first trial in Chicago, Freeman said, he had planned a news conference about the existence of footage of Kelly having sex with minors. According to the indictment, Kelly, McDavid and others paid Freeman $170,000 to cancel it.
The charges of receiving child sexual abuse imagery relate to the effort to recover several missing videos of Kelly engaging in sex acts with the person at the center of the 2008 trial.
Who has testified?
The jury heard from the woman whose testimony in 2008 was a missing piece of evidence in the case. Testifying under a pseudonym, the woman told the jury that Kelly, who had been her godfather, started sexually abusing her when she was 14 years old.
She said that in 2002, after law enforcement officials had obtained a videotape of the abuse, Kelly sent her and her parents out of the country to make them inaccessible to investigators. When they returned to Chicago, the woman testified, Kelly urged her to deny to a grand jury that it was her on the tape and paid for a lawyer to accompany her. She said that she had falsely told the grand jury that it was not her on the videotape and that she was not sexually involved with Kelly. The woman also said that she gave Kelly’s lawyers a necklace of hers that could be seen on the videotape.
But in recent years, the woman began cooperating with investigators.
“I no longer wanted to carry his lies,” she testified.
In cross-examination, Bonjean pointed to the woman’s immunity deal with prosecutors, which prevents her from being charged with perjury, as a reason the jury should doubt her account.
Three other women, who were also identified by pseudonyms, testified that Kelly sexually abused them when they were underage.
The jury has heard from several other witnesses, including a clinical psychologist who focuses on the grooming of minors and Daniel Everett, a retired Chicago police detective who had investigated the infamous videotape in the early 2000s and said that the location at which it had been shot matched Kelly’s home in Chicago.
Lawyers for the defendants called several witnesses who pointed to inconsistencies in the accusers’ accounts of events, including one woman’s claim that she was 16 when Kelly first sexually abused her, which conflicts with a lawsuit she filed that listed her as 17 at that time.
McDavid was the only defendant who testified on his own behalf. He denied knowing that there was an underage girl on the sex tapes that he was helping Kelly recover but said that he was now “embarrassed” and “sad” after learning “a lot of things that I had no idea about in 2008.”
How does the trial in Chicago differ from the one in Brooklyn?
The trials have been similar in that the centerpiece of the prosecutors’ case is testimony from people who say Kelly recruited them for sex, but the legal approaches are different.
In Brooklyn, Kelly was convicted of one count of racketeering based on allegations that he was the ringleader of a criminal enterprise that had carried out acts of bribery, kidnapping and forced labor. He was also convicted of eight counts of violating the Mann Act, a sex trafficking statute.
In the trial that started in August, which is in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the charges are just as complex. Kelly faces five counts of coercing a minor into criminal sexual activity; four counts of doing so for the purpose of producing a video of the conduct; two counts of receiving child pornography; one count of conspiring to receive child pornography; and one count of conspiring to obstruct an investigation.
One part of Kelly’s history that was not addressed is his illegal marriage to singer Aaliyah when she was 15 and Kelly was 27. The marriage was central to the case against Kelly in Brooklyn, where a witness testified that Kelly sexually abused Aaliyah when she was only 13 or 14 years old. (Aaliyah died in a 2001 plane crash.)
Kelly’s legal team asked the judge in the Chicago trial to exclude evidence related to the marriage, and that evidence was not introduced.
Is Kelly facing any other criminal charges?
Yes. Kelly still faces sex crime charges in Illinois and Minnesota. After the federal trial in Chicago, those charges will be dealt with next.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.