But despite scores of allegations—and even a high-profile criminal trial on child pornography charges—the Grammy-winning singer always seemed to dodge serious repercussions.
On Monday, after two years of delays spurred by a global pandemic and countless legal hurdles, Kelly was convicted of leading a criminal enterprise geared to help him prey on women and girls for his own sexual gratification.
Kelly, 54, was convicted on all the charges he faced in Brooklyn federal court, including racketeering based on sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping, forced labor, and violations of the Mann Act, which bars the transport of people across state lines for sex. Kelly’s legal team, for their part, had argued that the singer’s sexual encounters were all consensual and that those who spoke out against the singer were merely disgruntled exes with an agenda.
After six weeks of testimony and 50 witnesses, the 12 jurors responsible for Kelly’s criminal fate reached a verdict after nine hours of deliberation. Kelly is now facing decades in prison—he will be sentenced next May—not to mention pending federal and state charges in Chicago and Minnesota.
As the foreman read the verdict against Kelly, the disgraced singer sat stoically and stared straight ahead of him. After the verdict, Kelly walked out of the courtroom—without handcuffs—and an attorney for the singer told The Daily Beast they were “disappointed” with the outcome.
The conviction marks the latest #MeToo-era prosecutorial win against once-untouchable men who previously slipped through the legal system, after the conviction of serial rapist Harvey Weinstein.
“It isn’t easy to convict celebrities in this country, especially of sex abuse. Think back to Michael Jackson,” Neama Rahman, a former federal prosecutor, told The Daily Beast.
“A conviction will also empower other victims of sex abuse to come forward,” he added. “They’ll know they are not alone and that prosecutors will pursue their cases aggressively, regardless of the perpetrator’s celebrity status.”
The verdict also marks the second time Brooklyn federal prosecutors have successfully used a federal racketeering case, a statute commonly referred to by the acronym RICO, to take down a sexual predator. The same racketeering charge was employed in the prosecution of Keith Raniere, where Brooklyn prosecutors proved that the NXIVM “sex cult” leader was at the helm of a criminal enterprise enabling his own predation.
“The law recognizes when someone commits a crime as part of a group, he’s more powerful—more dangerous,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes told jurors during her closing arguments.
She added, “without his inner circle, the defendant could not have carried out the crimes he carried out for as long as he did.”
Outside the courthouse, Brooklyn federal prosecutors applauded the jury for a swift verdict that “begins the healing process for these young survivors,” as one put it.
They also commended the 11 men and women who spoke out against Kelly, who they called “a predator who used his fame and fortune to prey on the young, the vulnerable, and the voiceless for his own gratification.”
Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued that for decades, the disgraced R&B singer led a criminal enterprise consisting of bodyguards, drivers, and other employees.
“Just because you have one of your henchmen do your dirty work doesn’t make you any less responsible,” Geddes said.
To prove the case, nine women and two men took to the stand to discuss the abuse they endured at the hands of the singer. Almost all of the individuals who testified were under the age of 18 when they first had sexual contact with Kelly.
Among the women who testified was Jane, who testified about her harrowing five-year relationship with Kelly that began when she was 17.
During her three-day testimony, Jane said Kelly would make her and his other girlfriends wear baggy clothing, call him “Daddy,” and shield themselves from other men. If they did not follow these rules, Jane said, she and another girlfriend would be punished.
“He had mentioned rules… protocols that I would have to abide by in his presence,” Jane told jurors.
“He would control every single time we were intimate,” she later added. “He told me to walk back and forth and that’s what I would have to do until he gave me another direction.”
Among the punishments, she said, was being kept in a room for three days after buying the wrong-sized Hollister sweatpants and beaten with a size-12 Air Force 1 shoe for lying to the singer. In 2017, she said, the singer also forced her to have an abortion in an effort to “keep her body tight."
In what was probably the most horrifying episode of the trial, Jane broke down on the stand as she described Kelly making her smear feces on her mouth and eat it on video as punishment for disobeying one of his rules.
“He told me to smear it in my face and what to exactly say and to, like, put it in my mouth and act like I liked, enjoyed that,” she told jurors.
Several other women also testified about being sexually assaulted by Kelly, including one accuser who said she was assaulted by him after being locked in his studio for days. After the assault, she told jurors, she was threatened by one of Kelly’s associates to stay quiet and not to “fuck with Mr. Kelly.”
Another accuser told jurors that Kelly forced her to have sex in a Miami dressing room after one of his shows in September 1994—when she was just 17 years old.
The alleged assault occurred just two days after Kelly’s secret marriage to Aaliyah. Prosecutors said that Kelly bribed an Illinois official in order to obtain a fake ID for the “Princess of R&B,” who was just 15 years old at the time of their Aug. 31, 1994 wedding.
The trial also provided new details about the controversial marriage, including that the wedding occurred after Aaliyah believed she was pregnant. On Wednesday, Geddes took it a step further, arguing that the true reason Kelly wanted to marry Aaliyah was to make sure “she would get an abortion.” At the time, the “Princess of R&B” was 15, and Kelly was 27.
“No baby, no jail,” Geddes added.
In Feb. 1996, Aaliyah’s marriage to Kelly was annulled by her parents.
Kelly also allegedly preyed on at least two John Does when they were minors, including “Louis,” who told jurors he met the singer at a Chicago McDonald’s drive-thru in 2006. He said that during his over 10-year relationship with Kelly, which began when he was 17, the singer sexually assaulted him multiple times after promising to help with his music career.
“He asked what I was willing to do for the music,” Louis, 32, told jurors. “He crawled down on his knees to me and proceeded to give me oral sex.”
“As our relationship got stronger, he said I was like a brother. I was his little brother,” he later said, adding that Kelly asked him to call him “Daddy,” echoing testimony from multiple female accusers.
The second John Doe, whom Kelly met when he was 16 or 17, was also allegedly forced to have filmed sex with the singer and several of his girlfriends. Kelly is not charged for the alleged crimes against the two males.
The defense had a different take on the slew of allegations laid out by the prosecution. During closing arguments, an attorney argued that Kelly’s accusers had all previously lied to prosecutors and that they all had an ax to grind.
The defense called five witnesses to the stand. Most of them were employees of Kelly, who said they never heard women banging on doors or being physically abused.
“They were lying and you know they were lying,” defense attorney Deveraux Cannick said on Thursday. “Just lie after lie after lie. The government let them lie.”
“Where is the fairness to Robert? Where is the integrity in the system?” he added.
Some of Kelly’s supporters, who had been in court throughout the six-week trial, told The Daily Beast they were “heartbroken” by the verdict—and one blamed a “corrupt government who wanted to go after a superstar.”
“It’s appalling that the government just sat there as they allowed their witnesses lie on the stand,” Tina Brown, a 49-year-old Los Angeles resident who described herself as a relative of the singer, told The Daily Beast Monday.
Echoing the defense team’s final argument that all those who testified during the trial were “liars,” Brown added that she found it convenient that the government “now starts caring about listening to Black women.”
Another supporter, who was wearing a t-shirt with Kelly’s case next to a large speaker playing the singer’s music, simply yelled to The Daily Beast: “We’re not giving up on R. Kelly! All the way to appeal, the government are lying.”
In a last-ditch effort to prove Kelly’s innocence at trial, Cannick, the defense attorney, had compared his client to Martin Luther King Jr., Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and, most bizarrely, former Vice President Mike Pence.
“His label made him a sex symbol and playboy. Where is the crime in that?” Cannick said, before comparing his client to the Playboy founder. “Hugh Hefner, that was his life—not a crime. Not a crime.”
Prosecutors, however, quickly shut down the defense’s implication that those who took the stand “were asking for it and they deserved what they got—never mind they were teenagers, too young to consent.”
“It’s as if we took a time machine and went back to a courtroom in the 1950s,” Assistant District Attorney Nadia Shihata said. “It’s not just absurd, it’s shameful.”