R Kelly was yesterday found guilty of all charges at the conclusion of his high profile trial in New York. Prosecutors successfully convinced the jury that the musician built and ran a criminal enterprise that allowed him to prolifically groom and abuse young people, often teenagers. He could now spend the rest of his life in prison.
Rumours and allegations about Kelly – and what happened within his inner circle of associates and girlfriends – circulated for decades. Journalists, particularly the Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim DeRogatis, had been reporting on the allegations – and the secret legal settlements Kelly’s lawyers negotiated with accusers and victims – since at least the early 2000s.
However, when Kelly found himself in court facing child pornography charges in 2008, he was acquitted. It was subsequently claimed that the musician – or at least his associates – had intimidated witnesses during that trial.
The rumours and allegations persisted after the 2008 acquittal, but in wasn’t until the 2019 documentary ‘Surviving R Kelly’ that new legal proceedings began. With a number of the star’s victims agreeing to speak in that programme, after its airing criminal investigations began in multiple US states, with new charges soon following.
The charges in New York were the first to get to court. Beyond the allegations that Kelly routinely sexually and physically abused girls and women who were lured into his life, New York prosecutors also filed a number of other charges based on the claim that the musician had basically built and run a sophisticated criminal enterprise in order to facilitate the abuse. That included charges of racketeering and of violating the US Mann Act, a federal law that combats sex trafficking.
During the trial, jurors heard from nine women who had been victims of Kelly. Most told a similar story. They had been approached by one of Kelly’s associates at one of his concerts and had subsequently met the star, excited by his celebrity and/or the promise that he would help them pursue their own career in music.
They began to date, a sexual relationship would quickly develop, and Kelly would invite them to move into his home. As time progressed the musician would become increasingly controlling, with victims forced to follow strict rules, including getting permission to eat and use the bathroom. Breaking the rules would often result in physical punishment or being forced to perform humiliating acts, with Kelly usually filming the punishments.
Two male victims also testified, one explaining how he’d been instructed to have sex with different women in Kelly’s entourage, sometimes in order to punish those women, with the musician directing and filming the encounters.
Alongside the victims, the prosecution called numerous former employees and associates of Kelly, most of whom confirmed different elements of the testimonies of the musician’s victims, describing what life was like within the musician’s studio and home.
Others talked about Kelly’s short-lived marriage to a then fifteen year old Aaliyah in 1994. The marriage, it was claimed, happened because Kelly believed he had got Aaliyah pregnant, and had been advised that if his protege was also his wife she wouldn’t be able to testify against him if the pregnancy resulted in criminal charges. One witness also said that Kelly believed it would allow him to book an abortion for Aaliyah without informing her parents.
Arguments presented by the defence throughout the trial were pretty weak. Kelly had lost two of his key defence attorneys – Michael Leonard and Steve Greenberg – back in June, seemingly because of disagreements between them and the other lawyers working on the case, who were the people ultimately presenting Kelly’s defence in court.
From start to end the defence presented pretty much the same argument: that Kelly lived a rock n roll lifestyle, and that his accusers were just groupies who knew what they were getting into, and who were free to end their relationships with their client at any time.
The five witnesses the defence called added little to the proceedings. They were all former associates of Kelly who claimed they’d never seen any of the abuse the earlier witnesses had described. The prosecution countered that those associates either just weren’t around when the abuse occurred – or they had professional reasons to be wilfully blind to the abusive enterprise their employer was running.
When the defence presented a slightly more long-form version of their same old argument during summing up – ie rock n roll lifestyle, the accusers were groupies – prosecutor Nadia Shihata hit back by telling the jury: “It’s like we took a time machine and went back to a courthouse in the 1950s. What they’re arguing is that all of these women and girls were asking for it, and they deserved what they got – never mind that many of them were teenagers, too young to consent”.
In the end it took the jury just nine hours of deliberations over two days to reach their conclusion: Kelly was guilty of all charges. Commenting on the ruling for the prosecution, Jacquelyn Kasulis told reporters that the jury had now sent a message to other powerful men like Kelly: “No matter how long it takes, the long arm of the law will catch up with you”.
One of Kelly’s lawyers, Deveraux Cannick, revealed that his client hadn’t expected the guilty verdict before or during the trial. “The government cherry-picked their version that they thought would support the continuation of the narrative”, he said. “Why would he expect this verdict given all the inconsistencies that we saw?”
A number of Kelly’s victims spoke of their relief in hearing about the ruling. One said that she felt the judgement would allow her to “start living my life free from fear and to start the healing process”. Another said: “I’m so proud of the women who were able to speak their truths”.
Of course this saga is not yet over. There is sentencing and possible appeals, plus charges in multiple other states, including a pending trial in Kelly’s hometown of Chicago.
Meanwhile, given that Kelly’s crimes were a poorly kept secret within the music industry for so long, it remains to be seen whether there is any future scrutiny of people and companies that worked with Kelly beyond his inner circle, regarding what they knew, what they should have known, what they did and what they should have done, and to what extent they facilitated the star’s criminal enterprise.
Which is to say, while Kelly might spend the rest of his life in jail, how can the music industry ensure that it never again helps to enable – inadvertently or otherwise – any of its stars to use their stardom as a means to abuse others.