R. Kelly’s Trial Begins
The R&B star is accused of commanding a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls to have sex with him.
In the world of R&B music, R. Kelly long stood above his peers, reaching stardom on the strength of his slow jams and the allure of his uncommonly provocative lyrics.
But on Wednesday morning, the entertainer’s fate will move into the hands of a jury of everyday men and women, as his criminal trial begins in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Mr. Kelly faces charges that accuse him of commanding a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls to have sex with him as he soared to onstage success.
Prosecutors are expected to offer vivid details accusing Mr. Kelly and those in his orbit of building a decades-long system of sexual abuse. His defense team will seek to cast doubt on the accounts and motivations of the women at the center of the case, as jurors grapple with matters of consent, autonomy and sexual agency.
Outside the courthouse on Wednesday morning, fans of Mr. Kelly had scribbled messages of support, like “Free R. Kelly” and “Honey Love,” the name of one of his songs while he was in the R&B group Public Service Announcement.
The trial has been highly anticipated since Mr. Kelly’s sexual conduct came under fresh scrutiny during the height of the #MeToo movement. His long-delayed trial follows several similar high-profile cases over sexual misconduct accusations, including the trials of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the comedian and actor Bill Cosby.
But Mr. Kelly’s trial also stands apart. In Mr. Weinstein’s case, which touched off a national reckoning around sexual abuse, many of the women who came forward were actresses and models and were mostly white — as were many of those at the center of accusations in the most prominent cases across business, politics, media, and entertainment.
The majority of Mr. Kelly’s accusers are Black women.
“I do think it matters a lot — that this is the first high-profile #MeToo-era trial where the accusers, for the most part, aren’t white women,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at Northwestern University and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
Among those arriving at the courthouse on Wednesday were the parents of R. Kelly’s ex-girlfriend Jocelyn Savage. They were among a group that helped expose Mr. Kelly’s interactions with women and encouraged others to speak out.
Ms. Savage, who was R. Kelly’s girlfriend at the time of his arrest, had spoken up in the R&B singer’s defense in an interview with Gayle King in 2019. But in an unverified post on the website Patreon later that year, she said that Mr. Kelly had been controlling and abusive during their relationship.
Ms. Savage’s role in the trial is not totally clear. She is currently listed as a potential witness for the defense, and she is not among the six accusers who prosecutors expect to testify.
On Wednesday, her parents said they were hopeful about the trial that they had sought for so long.
“It started a long time ago and we have to finish it,” Ms. Savage’s father, Timothy Savage, said in an interview outside the courthouse. “We want to make sure that we have justice for these victims.”
Jurors will hear both testimonies from witnesses and evidence that accuses Mr. Kelly, 54, of kidnapping, forced labor, failing to disclose sexually transmitted diseases to his sexual partners, and producing child pornography. But the jury of seven men and five women will be tasked with processing a much broader question that is central to the case: whether an informal criminal organization existed around and contributed to the crimes Mr. Kelly is accused of.
The trial may not be the final chapter in the decades-long trail of murmurs and accusations of misbehavior that has cast a shadow over the recording artist’s career. Mr. Kelly also faces a trial in Chicago on federal charges and additional state sex crime charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
The singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, has staunchly denied all of the accusations against him.
“At this point, the public has only heard one side of the story in this case and that is about to change in the coming weeks,” one of Mr. Kelly’s lawyers, Thomas A. Farinella, said in a statement on Tuesday. He added that the racketeering charge against his client was “based on a series of independent relationships and events that the government is trying to patch together like different types of fabrics and trying to pass it off as silk.”
The case against the singer centers on six unnamed women, including two who appeared in the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” and two who the government says have never spoken publicly about their allegations. Three were underage at the time prosecutors say they were preyed on by Mr. Kelly.
Several of those women are expected to testify at the trial — a significant change from Mr. Kelly’s first criminal trial in 2008 on child pornography charges. A jury acquitted Mr. Kelly in that instance after the girl at the center of the case declined to testify.
Ms. Tuerkheimer said Black women and girls have historically been more likely than most to have their accounts of sexual abuses dismissed or overlooked by the public. If Mr. Kelly’s trial ultimately ends with a conviction, she said she would expect the verdict to have few broader implications for the system at large.
But, she added, it would still hold significance.
“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,” Ms. Tuerkheimer said. “And that would send a powerful message.”
R. Kelly’s Trial Begins