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R Kelly is a ‘predator’ whose fame brought ‘access to girls, boys and young women’, court told as New York trial begins

Written by on 19 August 2021

R Kelly is a “predator” whose fame brought him “access to girls, boys and young women”, a court has been told on the opening day of his trial over sexual abuse.

The trial, which is set to last for about a month, is expected to include testimony from several female accusers and at least one male accuser, with some allegations going back 20 years. The first of Kelly’s alleged victims told the court she was a 16-year-old virgin and a member of his fan club when he first invited her to his mansion and told her to take off her clothes.

Kelly, a three-time Grammy winner whose hits include I Believe I Can Fly, Bump ‘N’ Grind and Ignition, has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, sexual abuse and bribery, and strongly denied any wrongdoing. His defence lawyers have told jurors they will have to sift through “a mess of lies” and that any “relationships” were “consenting”.

R Kelly pictured in a courtroom sketch attending Brooklyn's Federal District Court during the start of his trial in New York Image: The singer pictured in a courtroom sketch on the opening day of the trial

But in her opening statement, Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the jury in New York that the R&B singer used his fame to entice his alleged victims and that he “dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically”.

The 54-year-old would often record sex acts with minors and controlled a racketeering enterprise of managers, bodyguards and other people who were eager to “fulfill each and everyone one of the defendant’s wishes and demands”, she said, adding that “what his success and popularity brought him was access – access to girls, boys and young women”.

“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Ms Melendez told the court in Brooklyn. “This case is about a predator.”

She described the singer as “a man who used lies, manipulation, threats and physical abuse to dominate his victims and to avoid accountability for years”.

The trial is under way following several delays, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an anonymous jury of seven men and five women sworn in to hear proceedings.

Following Ms Melendez’s speech, one of Kelly’s lawyers, Nicole Blank Becker presented a very different perspective, saying some of the singer’s accusers enjoyed the “notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they were with a superstar” and that there were “gaps” in the case.

Kelly did not “recruit” them, Ms Blank Becker told the court. “They were fans,” she said. “They came to Mr Kelly.”

She urged jurors to scrutinise the testimonies they will hear during the trial. “They knew exactly what they were getting into,” she said, adding that “it was no secret Mr Kelly had multiple girlfriends. He was quite transparent”.

R Kelly performing at the BET Awards in LA in 2013. Pic: Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP Image: Kelly is one of the world’s biggest recording artists, despite allegations throughout his career. Pic: Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP

The idea of Kelly leading an elaborate criminal enterprise would be a stretch, the lawyer said, before telling the court: “Don’t assume everybody’s telling the truth.”

In previous court papers, Kelly’s legal team has characterised his accusers as “disgruntled groupies” who were “dying to be with him”. They only started accusing him of abuse years later when public sentiment shifted in the #MeToo era, they say.

Kelly’s trial in New York comes after years of suspicions and accusations against him. In 2008, he went on trial in Illinois facing child pornography charges, but was acquitted.

Many of the allegations were featured in the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R Kelly, which aired early in 2019. The first of the latest charges against him were made shortly afterwards.

R Kelly's attorneys Nicole Becker and Thomas Farinella outside Brooklyn Federal court for opening statements in the R&B star's long-anticipated federal trial. Pic: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer      Image: R Kelly’s attorneys Nicole Becker and Thomas Farinella. Pic: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Jerhonda Pace, who appeared in Surviving R Kelly, was the first accuser to give evidence on Wednesday. She told jurors Kelly invited her to his mansion and ordered her to take off her clothes when she was just 16, and a member of his fan club.

“He asked me to continue to tell everyone I was 19 and act like I was 21,” she told the court. When she told Kelly she was a virgin, he said that was “good” and told her he wanted to “train her” sexually, she said.

Nine charges describe the singer’s alleged mistreatment of five female accusers – identified as “Jane Does” in court, although some, such as Ms Pace, have spoken out publicly – three of whom were said to be underage at the time. One accuser said Kelly failed to tell her that he had herpes when he had unprotected sex with her.

The singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, is accused of requiring his alleged victims to demonstrate “absolute commitment” and obey strict rules, including that they eat or go to the bathroom only with his permission, not look at other men, and call him “Daddy”.

Prosecutors say alleged victims were selected at concerts and other venues and arrangements were made 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”.

R&B singer and actress Aaliyah pictured in 2001. Pic: AP Image: R&B singer and actress Aaliyah married R Kelly when she was 15. She died in a plane crash in 2001, just months after this picture was taken. Pic: AP

The singer’s 1994 marriage to Aaliyah is also expected to come up during the trial. Prosecutors are aiming to show he bribed an official to obtain fake identification for the singer, who was 15 at the time – he was 27 – so that they could get married. Kelly believed he had got Aaliyah pregnant, and hoped a marriage would keep her from having to testify against him, prosecutors will argue.

Aaliyah, identified as Jane Doe #1 in the indictment, died in a plane crash in 2001.

Kelly, who last released a studio album in 2016, could face years in prison if he is found guilty. But the New York case is only part of the legal issues the singer is facing, with sex abuse charges brought in Illinois and Minnesota, too – to which he has also pleaded not guilty.

Women's rights attorney Gloria Allred, second from left, outside Brooklyn Federal court ahead of the opening statements in R&B star R Kelly's long-anticipated federal trial in New York. Pic: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer    Image: Women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred is in court for the trial. Pic: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred was among those seen entering the court before the start of the hearing on Wednesday.

“All I can say is that I’m very confident that the court will afford a fair trial both to Mr Kelly and also to the persons who allege that they are victims,” she told reporters.

Ms Becker and Thomas Farinella, another of Kelly’s lawyers, also spoke outside court.

“We’ve been preparing and ready to go,” said Mr Farinella. “Excited for Mr Kelly to have his day in court.”