Over the last week, a dozen jurors have been told over and over again that R. Kelly was at the helm of a vast and twisted criminal enterprise devoted to helping him prey on young people and blackmail them into total submission.
But by far the most disturbing witness, legal experts say, has been “Jane,” an anonymous woman who said she began a five-year relationship with Kelly when she was just 17.
The now-23-year-old broke down on the stand early this week as she described one of the worst things Kelly allegedly made her do: smear feces on her mouth and eat it.
“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,” the woman told jurors on Monday when describing how Kelly would “make me make videos as punishments.”
“Did you want to be doing that?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes asked, while Kelly sat across the barren courtroom.
“I did not,” Jane firmly answered.
In another video, Jane testified, she was forced to falsely say that her father had molested her while she was still crying from a severe spanking—or “chastisement” as Kelly allegedly called such punishments—for violating one of the singer’s rules. The idea, according to prosecutors, was that such a video might be held as leverage against her in the future.
Jane was far from alone in what prosecutors describe as a sordid web of abuse and misconduct. The first witness to testify, Jerhonda Pace, 28, told jurors she was sexually and physically abused by Kelly when she was 16 years old. During their six-month relationship, she said, Kelly also gave her herpes without at least initially disclosing he had the disease. (Jane made a similar allegation.)
Jane’s testimony also alluded to other horrors the singer imposed on her, like being kept in a room for three days after buying the wrong sized Hollister sweatpants or 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.”
But a canvass of legal experts by The Daily Beast concluded that, one week into a trial critics hope will finally provide a reckoning he has long evaded, the feces testimony stands out as a potential emotional linchpin in the case against Kelly. While the testimony didn’t necessarily nail any specific charge, experts say, it may serve to pull the rug out from the defense’s claim of a consenting relationship.
“It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the defense to argue that was consensual conduct by a girlfriend or mistress, and that image will be etched in the minds of the jurors in the deliberation room,” Neama Rahman, a former New York federal prosecutor, told The Daily Beast.
“I don’t think you can touch it if you’re the defense,” he added. “It’s so far beyond that pale, that it can blow up in your face on cross-examination if you go there. You just have to generally argue she is a liar in closing.”
As of Wednesday morning, defense attorneys had not brought up the feces allegation in Jane’s cross-examination—instead initially focusing on trying to discredit her credibility by grilling her on discrepancies between her testimony during the trial and what she has previously told prosecutors. The defense has also argued that Jane lied to Kelly when she told him he was 18 when they first met.
Kelly, 54, faces charges including racketeering based on kidnapping, sexual exploitation of children, and forced labor; he is also charged with violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits the transport of people across state lines for sex. The disgraced singer has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him and repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
The argument of consensual conduct is at the core of Kelly’s defense—that his accusers are simply disgruntled ex-girlfriends who “have an agenda,” as defense attorney Nicole Blank Becker put it in opening arguments. While Kelly’s defense team declined to comment directly on Jane’s feces allegation, their claims in open court seem focused on her being a “liar.”
During opening arguments last Wednesday, Becker described Jane as a "long-term girlfriend" of Kelly who “is just another example of someone who ended up having a motive.”
But according to prosecutors, the enterprise—including his drivers, bodyguards, and assistants—helped the Grammy-winning singer lure mostly underaged women into his inner circle, transport them across state lines to follow him to concerts, and enforce his bizarre rules.
In the first week, eight witnesses have testified about Kelly, all detailing the lengths to which both the singer and his team would go to ensure that every one of his desires was satisfied.
“The common thread is the outrageous requirements that these women had to adhere to and that they felt like they had no choice,” Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor, told The Daily Beast.
But while Cramer believes the prosecution so far has been doing a good job at “hammering” the common theme that these witnesses were abused, the defense has yet to “punch hard enough” to cause enough reasonable doubt for the jury, he said.
Echoing Rahman, Cramer said Jane’s testimony about the feces video is one graphic incident the defense can’t even touch.
“The testimony is so graphic that the jury is not going to have too much of a problem believing the witness was compelled to do something that no rational person would be compelled to do,” Cramer said. “Nobody would make up that story. It’s so bizarre and embarrassing.”
Likewise, Gerald Griggs, an attorney who represents several Kelly accusers and their families, told The Daily Beast that Jane’s testimony was so “powerful” because “it confirmed what we already knew: None of this was consensual.”
He added that he believes Jane’s testimony “was and is the key.”
Among Griggs’ clients are the parents of Joycelyn Savage, who still identifies herself as one of Kelly’s girlfriends and could be one of the defense’s only witnesses. Her possible testimony—or anyone who is willing to contradict accusers—may be crucial for the defense. Savage did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“I do think the R. Kelly defense desperately needs a female to testify that she was in a relationship with him and never saw this sort of behavior,” Rahman said. “Otherwise, the cumulative effect of these victims may be overwhelming.”
Cramer agreed, adding that the defense “only needs one person to hang tough in there” to discredit some of these allegations because it’s “hard to cross-examine something as harrowing” as Jane’s allegations.
“The testimony speaks for itself,” he said. “If you’re the defense, you need to separate the jury from their everyday lives as plumbers and accountants and put them into this surreal existence of high-flying musicians with unique tastes.”
For at least one Kelly supporter who has shown up to the trial every day, Jane’s testimony about the feces punishment video was no cause for concern.
“Who even knows if that’s real. I haven’t seen the tape,” the woman, who refused to identify herself, told The Daily Beast outside Brooklyn federal court Tuesday.
Griggs, however, believes Jane’s testimony is just the beginning.
“The government still has more to come,” he said, adding, “We still have at least three more weeks of this.”