Disgraced R&B star R. Kelly is on trial in New York. What charges does Kelly face, and what could be the broader implications of the trial?
What has R. Kelly been charged with?
Racketeering and sex trafficking. Federal prosecutors in New York have accused the "I Believe I Can Fly" singer Robert Kelly of running an organization that over the course of two decades "preyed upon women and girls who attended his concerts" and with whom Kelly allegedly engaged in illegal sexual activity. The charges center around his alleged abuse of six victims. Prosecutors have also said that Kelly required his alleged victims to follow numerous rules, including receiving permission to leave their rooms to use the bathroom or eat. He has pleaded not guilty. The racketeering charge will require prosecutors to demonstrate that "the sexual abuse was part of an organized criminal operation," The New York Times writes. This makes the trial unique from the similarly high-profile sex abuse cases against Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. If convicted, Kelly could face life in prison.
Why was he previously acquitted?
In 2002, Kelly was hit with child pornography charges, which stemmed from a tape that allegedly showed Kelly engaging in sex acts with an underage girl. Kelly denied he was the man on the tape, and was acquitted in 2008. According to the Chicago Tribune, the jury wasn't convinced that the girl on the tape, who did not testify, was Kelly's goddaughter, as prosecutors claimed.
What else has he been accused of?
Kelly has faced allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls since the 1990s, when as a 27-year-old, he illegally married 15-year-old singer Aaliyah. Their marriage was later annulled, and Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2000 that Kelly had sex with girls "as young as 15," but his music career continued to thrive. Years later, though, Kelly came under additional scrutiny in the wake of a 2017 BuzzFeed News report on his alleged "ongoing mental and physical abuse of several women" and allegations he was holding women against their will in a "cult." In January 2019, the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly detailed the allegations against the singer with interviews with numerous accusers, prompting another wave of backlash. Kelly has remained in custody since July 2019.
What testimony have jurors heard during the trial?
Jurors have heard from several accusers thus far. Jerhonda Pace testified that she had sexual encounters with Kelly when she was 16, alleging he sexually and physically abused her and instructed her to lie about her age. A woman identified as Addie alleged that Kelly raped her after a concert when she was 17. Another accuser said that he sexually assaulted her when she was 17, physically abused her, and "purposely" gave her herpes. Additionally, a man identified as Louis was the first male accuser to testify, alleging the singer sexually abused him when he was 17. Former employees have taken the stand. One said he was tasked with giving girls Kelly's phone number; another testified he bribed a government worker to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah so she and Kelly could get married.
What has his defense been?
Kelly's attorney, Nicole Blank Becker, has argued that the singer's alleged victims weren't recruited and "knew exactly what they were getting into." In one instance, Kelly's defense team had an accuser read a letter she wrote purporting to detail a plot to blackmail Kelly; the accuser said that Kelly "made me" write it to have as collateral. Becker has denied that Kelly is a "racketeering leader," telling jurors that the allegations pertain to his "personal life" but that his "personal life is not on trial."
Why else is the trial notable?
It's the first big MeToo case where most of the alleged victims aren't white women, former assistant district attorney Deborah Tuerkheimer observed to The New York Times. "If you take these kinds of accusers who have traditionally been most dismissed, most disregarded, most cast aside — and those women are able to be believed and have jurors care enough to convict, that matters." If Kelly's 2008 child pornography case involved white victims, producer Craig Williams said in Surviving R. Kelly, "I'm sure Rob would have gone to jail very swiftly."
What's next after the verdict?
The trial in New York, which is expected to last about a month, won't be Kelly's last. He's facing a slew of charges in other states, including aggravated sexual abuse, child pornography, enticing a minor to engage in criminal sexual activity, obstruction of justice, and prostitution and solicitation. He has continued to deny all of the allegations.