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R. Kelly's Trial Has Begun. The Singer Faces Decades Of Sex Abuse Charges

Singer R. Kelly appears in a Chicago courtroom in March 2019. The charges that R. Kelly faces in New York include racketeering "to prey upon young women and teenagers," and sexually trafficking these girls and women between states.
E. Jason Wambsgans
Getty Images
Singer R. Kelly appears in a Chicago courtroom in March 2019. The charges that R. Kelly faces in New York include racketeering "to prey upon young women and teenagers," and sexually trafficking these girls and women between states.

Updated August 18, 2021 at 4:56 PM ET

Editor's note: This report includes allegations of sexual and physical abuse.

Testimony has started as Day 1 of R. Kelly's federal trial winds down.

Kelly is being accused of a wide array of crimes: sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, kidnapping, forced labor and sexual trafficking across state lines. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Melendez called Kelly a "predator," telling the jury that he was "a man who used his fame, popularity and the individuals at his disposal to target and groom girls, boys and young women for his sexual gratification."

Kelly's defense lawyer, Nicole Blank Becker, is attempting to position the accusers as liars who were in consensual long-term relationships with Kelly. "They're going to tell you Mr. Kelly is this monster. You're also going to hear that some of these relationships were beautiful," said Becker.

Among the accusers, Jerhonda Johnson Pace was the first to testify. In 2017 Pace told Buzzfeed News that she met Kelly as a teenager, skipping school to attend Kelly's 2008 trial in which he was cleared of child pornography charges. She largely repeated the story in court, testifying that she had sexual relationship with Kelly, even after she revealed to him that she was underage. Pace was also heavily featured in the 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly, where she detailed what her life was like living with R. Kelly.

Kelly was once hailed as the "king of R&B," a hitmaker for himself and for collaborators who ranged from Celine Dion to Justin Bieber. He's been held in custody since July 2019, awaiting the start of his New York trial. (A second federal trial in Illinois on separate charges of child pornography and obstruction will follow.) The lengthy delays in New York were due to the pandemic, superseding charges issued by both sets of prosecutors and rounds of shuffling on his defense team.

The jurors, who will remain anonymous and partially sequestered throughout the proceedings, include seven men and five women. The trial is expected to last about a month. Continued coronavirus precautions at the Brooklyn courthouse where the trial is taking place mean that the press and the public are being restricted to overflow courtrooms outfitted with video and audio feeds.

The federal prosecutors in New York are structuring their case similar to that of an organized crime case. The charges include racketeering — that is, that Kelly allegedly ran a criminal enterprise whose explicit purpose was "to prey upon young women and teenagers," and that he was allegedly aided by managers, gofers, and others in his entourage — as well as sexually trafficking the girls and women across state lines.

The New York charges include six alleged victims — including the singer Aaliyah, Kelly's former protégée, whom he married in 1994, when she was 15 and he was 27. The government is also hoping to have the jurors hear and see what they say is evidence of other, uncharged criminal offenses committed by Kelly between 1991 and 2018. Those other allegations include 20 Jane Does and one teenaged John Doe.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
Andrew Limbong
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.