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The long-awaited R. Kelly sex abuse trial begins with opening statements

R. Kelly in 2019.
Singer R. Kelly in 2019.
(Amr Alfiky / Associated Press)

A prosecutor opened the long-anticipated sex abuse trial of R&B star R. Kelly on Wednesday by describing the singer as a “predator” who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically.

“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Maria Cruz Melendez told the Brooklyn jury as she explained the evidence to be revealed at his federal trial.

“This case is about a predator,” she said.

She said Kelly invited children and women to join him after shows by distributing backstage passes.

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Once he had them alone, Melendez said, he “dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically.”

After several delays, the first phase of the sex trafficking trial of R&B star R. Kelly has begun with jury selection in New York City.

The prosecutor said Kelly would often record sex acts with minors while controlling a racketeering enterprise of individuals who were loyal and devoted to him, eager to “fulfill each and everyone one of the defendant’s wishes and demands.”

“What his success and popularity brought him was access, access to girls, boys and young women,” she said.

A lawyer for Kelly was expected to deliver an opening statement after Melendez completed hers.

The trial unfolds more than a decade after 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 more alleged victims to come forward.

The accusers’ stories got wide exposure with 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 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.

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They’re expected to offer testimony about how Kelly’s managers, bodyguards and other employees helped him recruit women, 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.”

“Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” Lifetime’s follow-up to its explosive 2019 docuseries, turns up new allegations of sexual abuse against the singer.

When his intended victims arrived at their lodgings, a member of Kelly’s entourage would set down rules forbidding them from speaking to one another, telling them how to dress and that they needed permission from Kelly before eating or going to the bathroom, prosecutors say. Also, they allegedly were required to call him “Daddy.”

Defense lawyers have said 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.

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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, in advertisements and elsewhere.

An anonymous jury made up of seven men and five women was sworn in to hear the case. The trial, coming after several delays due mostly to the COVID-19 pandemic, unfolds 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.


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