R Kelly appeared in criminal court on Wednesday for his long-anticipated federal trial on charges of sexual abuse and racketeering, with a prosecutor describing the disgraced R&B singer as a man who used his “fame, popularity and network of people” to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them.
Maria Cruz Melendez told the court in opening statements: “This case is about a predator.”
More than a decade has passed since Kelly was acquitted in a 2008 child sexual abuse images 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 with the Lifetime documentary Surviving R Kelly, which premiered in January 2019. The series explored claims that an entourage of supporters protected Kelly and silenced his victims for decades. At least two women who were in the documentary series are expected to testify in the trial.
Months after the release of the documentary, the R&B singer was arrested in July 2019 on federal charges of racketeering and violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women or girls for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Kelly is being accused of committing a pattern of multiple crimes as a leader of an “enterprise” consisting of close employees, including managers, bodyguards, personal assistants and runners who helped Kelly recruit women and girls allegedly for sexual relations. The crimes include bribery, sexual exploitation, producing child abuse images and illegal coercion and enticement.
Explaining the arguments prosecutors would present during the trial, Melendez told the jury on Wednesday that Kelly had an “inner circle” made up of close employees whose purpose was to help him maintain a clean public “persona” and to meet “each and every one of [Kelly’s] wishes and demands”, including helping recruit and groom young women and girls for sexual relationships.
Melendez told jurors how Kelly had risen to prominence in the 1990s and was soon headlining concerts and working with other popular artists in the music industry.
This success “brought him access – access to girls, boys and young women,” Melendez said. She said Kelly “quickly learned he could take advantage of this access”.
She said Kelly “used every trick in the predator handbook”, luring young women and girls, including young teenagers, by giving them backstage passes and his phone number. He invited them – some of whom were aspiring musicians who looked up to Kelly as a mentor – to visit his home or the studio, and he often paid for and helped to arrange travel for the girls to see him, Melendez said.
But the lavish attention had a dark side, the court heard. Kelly looked to “exert power over them” and “dominated and controlled them, physically, sexually and psychologically”.
“This is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Melendez said. Kelly’s “sexual conduct was illegal”, she said.
Kelly, Melendez said, would abuse the women for breaking “the rules”, which often included requiring his permission to use the bathroom, eat or make calls, calling him “daddy”, wearing baggy clothing that hid their figures and refraining from looking at other men.
“Above all else, he demanded absolute obedience,” Melendez said.
The court heard there would be “cruel and demeaning punishments” for breaking the rules, including violent spankings and beatings. Kelly kept the young women and girls compliant and quiet through fear, blackmailing them with embarrassing information or photos and videos he took of them, the court heard.
Melendez said that the prosecutors would reveal how Kelly paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in “hush payments” to prevent women and girls from disclosing their relationships with him.
In her opening statement for the defense, Nicole Blank Becker said that the prosecution’s claims were “exaggerated” and that the charges were “overreaching”.
The relationships in question were “consenting relationships with adults”, Becker said, and while the prosecution was trying to paint Kelly as a “monster”, he had had “long-term” relationships with some of the women.
Becker said the women “knew exactly what they were getting into”.
The women took advantage of Kelly’s wealth, getting cash to help their family pay bills or go on “elaborate shopping sprees”, the court heard.
“Ignore the window dressing,” Becker said, encouraging jurors to focus on the specific laws Kelly is accused of breaking. “You’re going to hear so much drama.”
After opening statements, the first witness took the stand.
Jerhonda Pace, one of the six main accusers, answered questions from the prosecution about the relationship she had with Kelly when she was 16.
Pace described how she was a huge fan of Kelly as a young teenager and attended the singer’s child sex abuse images trial in Chicago in 2008. Pace gave her contact information to Kelly’s team and was invited to a party at Kelly’s house in May 2009, where she and Kelly personally exchanged numbers.
She described how Kelly was soon inviting her over to his house and said that they had had sex multiple times over the course of about half a year. Though she initially told Kelly she was 19, she disclosed to him that she was actually 16, to which he responded, “What is that supposed to mean?” and instructed her to lie about her age, the court heard.
Pace said Kelly physically abused her multiple times for breaking “the rules”. In once incident, the court heard, she did not acknowledge Kelly when he entered the room, violating one of “the rules”, and was instead texting on her cellphone. Kelly did not believe Pace when she said she was texting on her phone, she said.
“That’s when he slapped me and he choked me until I passed out,” Pace said. “When I woke up, I was on the floor.”
The trial continues.
Associated Press contributed to this report