R. Kelly Stands Trial in Chicago: What to Know
R. Kelly, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for racketeering and sex trafficking earlier this year, will stand trial again starting this week, beginning the next chapter of prosecutors’ efforts to hold him criminally responsible for allegations of sexual abuse dating back more than three decades.
The trial is in Chicago, the city Mr. Kelly long called home, and where he faced his first criminal trial in 2008.
This time, federal prosecutors are seeking to hold Mr. Kelly and his associates accountable for working to stymie the earlier trial, in which a jury acquitted Mr. Kelly of producing child sexual abuse imagery. They are accusing Mr. Kelly and a former employee who is also on trial, Derrel McDavid, of arranging hush money payments and seeking to conceal evidence that would have aided prosecutors when they were investigating the singer in the early 2000s.
Mr. Kelly, 55, will face charges that he coerced five minors into sex acts, and several charges related to producing child sexual abuse imagery. He and Mr. McDavid also face charges of receiving child sexual abuse imagery, during what prosecutors have described as a scheme to recover missing tapes of Mr. Kelly having sex with minors.
A third man — another former employee of Mr. Kelly’s, Milton Brown — is facing a related charge. All three men have pleaded not guilty.
The trial will be an emotional moment for many in Chicago who have witnessed Mr. Kelly’s rise from a child of the city to a pop and R&B star, then his fall after he was accused of luring underage girls into his orbit.
“Chicago has always struggled with this because he is local and we tend to go up for our locals,” said Mikki Kendall, a writer who grew up in the city and recalled, in the Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” seeing the adult singer approaching teenage girls at a local McDonald’s. “There are people who are going to be very upset and will again try to insist that the girls are at fault, and there are going to be people — and I am one of them — who are going to say 59,000 times: He is a grown man preying on very young women and children.”
The first public disclosure of abuse allegations came in a 1996 lawsuit, and a steady drip of legal claims and articles followed over the next two decades. The renewed effort to prosecute Mr. Kelly came in 2019, after the Lifetime documentary broadcast accounts of women who described being abused and controlled by him, oftentimes when they were teenagers.
One year ago, Mr. Kelly stood trial in New York, where a jury found him guilty of leading a decades-long scheme to recruit women and underage girls for sex. He started serving his 30-year prison term in Brooklyn before he was transferred to a federal prison in Chicago for the current trial.
What happened in the 2008 trial?
The 2008 trial was a result of a 2002 grand jury indictment of Mr. Kelly on 21 counts of child pornography, which were later reduced to 14. The case took years to go to a jury. During that time, the singer debuted some of the biggest hits of his career, including “Ignition” and “Step in the Name of Love.”
The trial revolved around a 27-minute tape that prosecutors said showed Mr. Kelly having a sex with a teenage girl and urinating on her. The case hinged on whether the jury was convinced that the people in the tape were who the prosecutors said they were. Mr. Kelly and the young woman denied they were the ones on the tape, and neither testified in the trial.
A jury found Mr. Kelly not guilty on all charges, and after the verdict was released, jurors said the young woman’s refusal to testify was a significant barrier to convicting him.
How is that relevant to the current trial?
A portion of the trial will focus on charges that Mr. Kelly and his associate, Mr. McDavid, conspired to obstruct the previous federal investigation by paying off people with knowledge of Mr. Kelly’s abuse and seeking to suppress evidence.
Prosecutors accuse Mr. Kelly of persuading the minor in the tape to deny to a grand jury in the early 2000s that she had a sexual relationship with Mr. Kelly and that it was her in the 27-minute video. According to the federal indictment, Mr. Kelly and Mr. McDavid arranged payments and bought gifts for the minor and her parents over a roughly 15-year period to prevent them from speaking to law enforcement about the abuse.
These hush money payments were part of a broader effort, prosecutors say, to hide evidence of Mr. Kelly’s sexual abuse from investigators.
In 2001, after state officials started investigating whether Mr. Kelly had been abusing the child at the center of the 2008 trial, Mr. Kelly and his associates realized that several videotapes of the singer sexually abusing minors had gone missing, according to the indictment in the case. After that realization, Mr. Kelly and Mr. McDavid started a multiyear effort to have those videos returned, paying an unnamed person hundreds of thousands of dollars to recover them, the indictment said.
Around the time of the first trial in Chicago, prosecutors say, the person that Mr. Kelly and Mr. McDavid hired to find the missing videos planned a news conference about the existence of footage of Mr. Kelly having sex with minors. According to the indictment, Mr. Kelly, Mr. McDavid and others paid the person $170,000 to cancel it.
The charges of receiving child sexual abuse imagery relate to the effort to recover several missing videos of Mr. Kelly engaging in sex acts with the person at the center of the 2008 trial.
Who is expected to testify?
Prosecutors have not revealed exactly who they will call to testify, but court papers suggest that they now have the cooperation of the woman whose testimony in 2008 was a missing piece of evidence in their case, as well as her mother.
The indictment also suggests that prosecutors have the cooperation of four other people who say that Mr. Kelly coerced them into sex when they were underage, between 1996 and 2001.
Judge Harry D. Leinenweber, who will preside over the case, recently ruled that any accusers called to testify will be able to do so using pseudonyms.
A lawyer representing Mr. Kelly, Jennifer Bonjean, did not respond to requests for comment on the case. Mr. Kelly did not testify in the trial in Brooklyn.
In a tweet last week, Ms. Bonjean wrote that it would be difficult to find 12 jurors who would be fair “given the media war on my client.”
“The government starts with an incredible advantage but we are going to fight like hell to get a jury that will follow the law,” she wrote.
How does the trial in Chicago differ from the one in Brooklyn?
The trials are likely to be similar in that the centerpiece of the prosecutors’ case is testimony from people who say Mr. Kelly recruited them for sex, but the legal approaches are different.
In Brooklyn, Mr. Kelly was convicted of one count of racketeering based on allegations that he was the ringleader of a criminal enterprise that had carried out acts of bribery, kidnapping and forced labor. He was also convicted of eight counts of violating the Mann Act, a sex trafficking statute.
In the trial starting this week, which is in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the charges are just as complex. Mr. Kelly faces five counts of coercing a minor into criminal sexual activity; four counts of doing so for the purpose of producing a video of the conduct; two counts of receiving child pornography; one count of conspiring to receive child pornography; and one count of conspiring to obstruct a federal investigation.
One part of Mr. Kelly’s history that is not likely to be addressed is his illegal marriage to the singer Aaliyah when she was 15 and Mr. Kelly was 27. The marriage was central to the case against Mr. Kelly in Brooklyn, where a witness testified that Mr. Kelly sexually abused Aaliyah, who died in a 2001 plane crash, when she was only 13 or 14 years old.
Mr. Kelly’s legal team asked the judge in the Chicago trial to exclude evidence related to the marriage, and prosecutors responded that they did not intend to introduce evidence on the subject.
Is R. Kelly facing any other criminal charges?
Yes. Mr. Kelly still faces sex crime charges in Illinois and Minnesota. After the federal trial in Chicago, those charges will be dealt with next.