Content warning: This story contains discussion and descriptions of sexual abuse.
On the opening day of R. Kelly‘s trial on sexual abuse charges, federal prosecutor Maria Cruz Melendez told a Brooklyn courtroom the singer was a “predator”.
During her opening statements on Wednesday (August 18), Cruz Melendez described Kelly as a “predator” who “for decades used his fame, his popularity and a network of people at his disposal to target, groom, and exploit girls, boys and young women for his own sexual gratification”.
As Vulture reports, Cruz Melendez went on to say that Kelly’s alleged pattern of abuse aligned with the growth of his career, saying that “success and popularity brought him… access to girls, boys and young women,” whom he then “dominated” and exerted control over.
The charges relate to Kelly’s alleged crimes against five female accusers – three of whom were purportedly underage at the time – who allege physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Kelly, 54, has denied wrongdoing and pled not guilty to the nine charges in this case: one of racketeering and eight violations of the Mann Act, which criminalises the transportation of any woman or girl across state lines for “immoral” purposes, such as illegal sexual activity.
Prosecutors are alleging that Kelly – real name Robert Sylvester Kelly – ran a racketeering enterprise from 1994 up until his arrest in 2019, employing a network of managers, bodyguards and others to facilitate his alleged crimes.
Cruz Mendelez told the jury in her opening statements that the singer used “lies, manipulations, threats and physical abuse” in order to control his victims, and allegedly often recorded footage of his sexual encounters with the accusers to attempt to prevent them from speaking out.
In her statements, Cruz Mendelez detailed a relationship between Kelly and the late singer Aaliyah, who began working with Kelly when she was 15 and he was 27. Cruz Mendelez said shortly after they began working together, their relationship became sexual.
The singer’s marriage to Aaliyah in 1994, prosecutors will argue, came after Aaliyah fell pregnant at 15, with Kelly hoping a marriage would prevent her from having to testify against him. Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001.
Kelly’s trial is expected to last approximately a month, and will include testimony from multiple female accusers and at least one male accuser.
The first woman to give testimony at the trial was Jerhonda Pace. On Wednesday, she claimed that Kelly was aware that she was 16 years old when the two engaged in sexual activity, but that the singer told her to pretend she was 19.
Pace, who was an avid fan and a member of an R. Kelly fan club on MySpace, alleged Kelly had multiple sexual encounters with her over the course of six months. Pace claimed Kelly invited her to his mansion and told her to take off her clothes, and said he was going to “train her” sexually.
Another of Kelly’s alleged victims is a woman identified only as “Sonja,” who alleges she was sexually abused nearly 20 years ago at Kelly’s Chicago studio. Prosecutors say that upon arrival, she was led to a room that she was then locked in for three days, “pleading to get out, to go home, to get some food [and] to go to the bathroom”.
After falling asleep, prosecutors allege, she woke up and immediately realised she had been sexually assaulted.
Kelly’s lawyer, Nicole Blank Becker, told the jury that she believed they would hear that the relationships Kelly had with his accusers were “consensual”, saying the individuals “knew what they were getting into”.
Kelly was first taken into custody in early 2019 on 10 charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. He was later arrested again in July that year, after being indicted on a further 13 charges by federal officers.
The trial has been delayed multiple times, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In February, US District Judge Ann Donnelly said a planned April 2021 date was “not realistic”, setting a new August date. The trial will continue today, Thursday August 19.
Kelly, who was moved from Chicago to Brooklyn for the trial, faces decades in prison if convicted. He is also concurrently facing other sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota. He has pled not guilty to those charges.