Advertisement
Share

After years of dark rumors, R. Kelly is finally on trial. Catch up on the case so far

A profile of a man with a beard in an orange jumpsuit
R. Kelly appears during a 2019 hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago.
(Antonio Perez / Pool / Chicago Tribune via Associated Press)

In the 1990s, ascending R&B star R. Kelly was considered a titan of his genre — dominating the charts and raking in record sales while churning out back-to-back hits such as “Bump N’ Grind,” “Gotham City” and “Your Body’s Callin’.”

By the time he collected his first three Grammy Awards in 1998 for “I Believe I Can Fly,” his inspirational contribution to the blockbuster “Space Jam” soundtrack, the so-called Pied Piper of R&B had amassed millions of dollars and a fiercely loyal fan base.

But the allegations of sexual impropriety and abuse that have dogged him for 25 years have finally caught up with him: The 54-year-old recording artist is on trial in Brooklyn, N.Y., accused in federal court of serially abusing women and girls across nearly two decades. He has also been charged in Illinois and Minnesota, with additional trials to follow.

Long before his sex-trafficking trial began Aug. 18, Kelly had already developed a dark reputation for allegedly sexually assaulting and exploiting young women and girls, most notably his beloved musical protégé — and former child bride — Aaliyah Haughton, who died in a 2001 plane crash at age 22.

Advertisement

Welcome, latecomers to Britney Spears’ conservatorship battle (and experts who want to test their wits). This Q&A will tell you all you need to know.

Damning testimony involving Haughton and several other alleged victims has cast a menacing light on Kelly, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges. This story covers the prosecution’s portion of the proceedings, with the defense’s side of the story still to come.

Here’s a rundown of the complex case against the singer thus far.

How did this start?

A split image of a man in a blue suit and a woman in a black T-shirt
Singer R. Kelly and his late musical protégé Aaliyah.
(Associated Press)

Rumors of ephebophilia and other sexual misconduct began pooling around Kelly when reports surfaced in 1994 that he secretly and illegally wed 15-year-old Haughton. Kelly was 27 at the time of the marriage, which was reportedly annulled shortly thereafter.

(Haughton’s debut album, titled “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” and produced by Kelly, was also released in 1994.)

Before Haughton died, she and Kelly denied that the wedding had taken place. But scandalous headlines raised questions about Kelly and the nature of his relationship with the late teen idol.

A woman testified Monday that singer R. Kelly sexually abused her when she was 17 and married the late Aaliyah to sign off on her abortion.

Advertisement

In the late 1990s, Tiffany Hawkins became the first to publicly accuse Kelly of sexual assault in a lawsuit that was settled out of court. Hawkins, who once sang backup vocals for Haughton and played a key role in “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” the sequel to Lifetime’s documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” maintains she was 15 when Kelly began assaulting her.

“I was the first girl [who came forward],” Hawkins says in Part 2 of the docuseries. “Nobody believed me. And it continued to happen, again and again and again.”

Since Hawkins sounded the alarm, a growing number of women have gone public with their own allegations of sexual assault against Kelly, with new accounts and evidence surfacing steadily for more than 20 years.

Kelly has repeatedly denied their claims.

Advertisement

What is Kelly on trial for now?

A courtroom sketch of a man in a mask sitting at a table with lawyers
A courtroom artist’s sketch of a masked R. Kelly at his trial in New York.
(Elizabeth Williams / Associated Press)

In Brooklyn, Kelly faces one racketeering charge and four violations of the Mann Act, which criminalizes transporting people across state lines for the purposes of illegal sexual activity.

The prosecution has positioned Kelly as a predator who leveraged his fame and power to lure young women and children into a world of physical, sexual and psychological torment.

Kelly stands accused of recording sexual activity with minors and running a sex-trafficking operation aided by his managers, bodyguards and other employees. Prosecutors allege that Kelly’s team targeted victims at concerts and other events and arranged for them to travel to meet Kelly in New York City and elsewhere.

Advertisement

Once in Kelly’s domain, the victims were allegedly subjected to strict rules forbidding them from speaking to one another, forcing them to call the singer “Daddy” and regulating their attire, bathroom breaks and eating schedules.

Sex abuse trial of R&B star R. Kelly begins with opening statements in New York.

What is Kelly’s defense?

Kelly’s attorneys have denied the charges and presented their client as an innocent target of the #MeToo movement.

The defense has painted Kelly’s alleged victims as devoted fans who were “dying to be with him” and only accused him of abuse after the #MeToo movement shifted the paradigm surrounding sexual misconduct.

Advertisement

What took so long?

Though Kelly was arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges in 2019, the New York phase of the trial was delayed nearly two years, primarily because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In July, the court date was pushed further, from early to late August, in order to give Kelly’s brand-new legal team — hired less than a month prior — more time to prepare its defense. Kelly has been in jail since his 2019 indictment.

The defense has yet to present its witnesses in the trial, which commenced Aug. 18. The prosecution is expected to rest its case during the week of Sept. 13.

What are the witnesses saying?

Courtroom sketch of a pregnant woman speaking into a microphone
A courtroom sketch of Jerhonda Pace testifying against R. Kelly.
(Elizabeth Williams / Associated Press)
Advertisement

During the first two weeks of Kelly’s trial, the prosecution presented a number of witnesses who detailed disturbing accounts of manipulation, bribery, ephebophilia and assault, both physical and sexual. Here is a sampling of their testimonies under oath.

The first witness called to the stand, Jerhonda Pace, accused Kelly of sexually and physically assaulting her during a six-month period after inviting her to his Chicago-area mansion in 2010. Over the course of multiple days, she wept while testifying that Kelly beat her, choked her, spit in her face and infected her with herpes. A former member of Kelly’s official fan club, Pace told jurors she was 16 and a virgin before Kelly assaulted her.

Another witness, former Kelly employee Anthony Navarro, described the artist’s Chicagoland residence as a strange “Twilight Zone” in which Kelly exercised extreme control over women and girls who stayed there. Though he never saw the singer sexually abuse them, Navarro said some of the “girls” were held captive and prohibited from eating or leaving without Kelly’s permission.

One of R. Kelly’s former employees says the singer lived in a ‘Twilight Zone’ where he called all the shots, including when visitors could leave.

Advertisement

Up next was Demetrius Smith, a former tour manager of Kelly’s who said he paid a government official $500 to procure a fake identification card that said Haughton was 18. This allowed Kelly to marry the rising singer in a hotel room near Chicago’s O’Hare airport when she was only 15.

Smith claimed that Kelly informed him Haughton was “in trouble” — suggesting she was pregnant — and that marrying her was necessary to “protect him and Aaliyah.”

“‘I know how to get her an ID,’” Smith recalled telling Kelly. “And that’s what I did.”

Another woman, identified anonymously as Jane Doe, accused Kelly of sexually abusing her on his tour bus and in hotel rooms after asking the aspiring singer to “audition” for him in private and forcing himself upon her. The witness, now 23, told jurors that Kelly raped her, infected her with herpes without warning, repeatedly struck her with a shoe and forced her to smear feces on her face, among other forms of abuse — all when she was a minor and he was in his late 40s.

Advertisement

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.

She also testified that Kelly impregnated both her and Haughton and forced them to get abortions. Kelly allegedly married Haughton so that she could undergo the procedure with his legal consent. Later, the same witness claimed that Kelly coerced her and others to write fake blackmail letters so he could defend himself if charged with sexually abusing them.

“I’m going to tell everyone you raped me,” the witness read from one of the letters, allegedly penned at Kelly’s request. “I’m going to say you raped me because I was a minor.”

Another Jane Doe witness told jurors that Kelly prevented her and others from watching the landmark documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” in which multiple women detailed harrowing memories of mental and sexual abuse. Additionally, the witness said Kelly intimidated them into covering for him during a 2019 conversation with Gayle King for “CBS This Morning.” According to her testimony, Kelly physically loomed over the interview and coughed as a warning to stick to his script.

Advertisement

While testifying that Kelly raped her as a 17-year-old hotel employee in 1999, another woman said Kelly once compared himself to veteran rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, who infamously married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957.

“Even look at Jerry Lee Lewis,” she recalled Kelly saying while explaining that he was attracted to young girls. “He’s a genius and I’m a genius. We should be allowed to do whatever we want. Look at what we give to the world.”

During the second week of the trial, a male accuser testified that Kelly offered to help launch his music career before performing oral sex on him without his consent. In another encounter, the man said, Kelly ordered a naked girl to perform oral sex on both himself and the witness.

Advertisement

That accuser’s account was followed by that of another woman who said Kelly sexually abused her and infected her with herpes when she was 19. He then allegedly threatened to blackmail her with nude photos when she sued him for failing to inform her of his STI.

At one point, the same witness said, Kelly forced her to perform oral sex on him while a gun was on his person after verbally abusing her. “He had a weapon, so I wasn’t going to step out of line,” she said.

In a video dispatch to the court room, Nathan Edmond — the minister who wed Kelly and Haughton in 1994 — delivered bombshell testimony recollecting his involvement in the private ceremony. After refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement, Edmond said, he was sworn to secrecy and declined to speak publicly about the event until appearing at the Brooklyn trial.

Advertisement

At the time of the wedding, Edmond did not know who Kelly and Haughton were, he said, adding that the 15-year-old‘s face was obscured by her hair during the proceedings.

Kelly’s team has denied all of the allegations.

What if he’s convicted?

A sketch of a courtroom full of people
A courtroom sketch of R. Kelly, top left, listening to witness Jerhonda Pace’s, far left, testimony.
(Elizabeth Williams / Associated Press)

If convicted of racketeering, Kelly faces up to 20 years in prison. The Mann Act charges could also compound his sentence.

Advertisement

Has Kelly ever been convicted before?

No. Kelly was acquitted on child pornography charges in 2008 after he was accused of videotaping himself sexually assaulting his 13-year-old goddaughter six years prior.

“At some point we said there was a lack of evidence,” one juror said at the time. “There was nothing concrete enough to say it was him or her on that tape.”

What else has Kelly been charged with?

In addition to the charges brought against him in New York, Kelly also faces a number of counts in Illinois, including aggravated sexual abuse, child pornography, enticement of a minor and obstruction of justice. The Illinois trial will begin after the New York trial ends.

He has also been charged in Minnesota with prostitution and solicitation of a minor.

Advertisement

When will the Brooklyn trial end?

The Brooklyn trial began in late August and is expected to last approximately a month.

How can I watch it?

Because cameras are not permitted in federal court, you can’t watch. But the Associated Press has been providing frequent updates on the trial since it began.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Advertisement