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What you need to know about R&B star R Kelly’s trial on sex trafficking and racketeering charges

R. Kelly walks inside the Criminal Court Building as he arrives for a hearing on eleven new counts of criminal sexual abuse, in Chicago, Illinois, on June 6, 2019. File picture: Daniel Acker/Reuters

R. Kelly walks inside the Criminal Court Building as he arrives for a hearing on eleven new counts of criminal sexual abuse, in Chicago, Illinois, on June 6, 2019. File picture: Daniel Acker/Reuters

Published Aug 19, 2021

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Sonia Rao

Opening statements and testimony began Wednesday in the federal trial of R. Kelly, the disgraced R&B singer facing sex trafficking and racketeering charges in New York. If convicted, Kelly, 54, is looking at decades in prison.

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In addition to the New York charges, Kelly faces numerous counts of sexual assault and abuse in Illinois. Both sets of legal proceedings were sparked by two decades' worth of sexual misconduct allegations against Kelly, who was previously acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008.

Here's what to know about the case.

Why is R. Kelly on trial?

Kelly is standing trial in the Eastern District of New York over racketeering charges and violations of the Mann Act, which criminalizes sex trafficking across state lines. The charges stem from March 2020, when federal prosecutors in New York outlined them in a superseding indictment that followed charges from the previous year of kidnapping, racketeering, forced labour and sexual exploitation of children.

The federal indictment from July 2019 coincided with another in Illinois that included charges of child pornography and obstruction of justice among its 13 counts. Both indictments arrived mere months after Kelly was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse on the state level.

The singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, has denied the allegations against him.

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Why was the trial delayed?

The trial in Brooklyn federal court was delayed due to the pandemic, as well as the superseding charges that Illinois and New York prosecutors each filed in February and March of last year, respectively.

Opening statements were previously scheduled for Aug. 9, when jury selection took place. But Kelly switched legal teams in July, and his new team requested more time to prepare its defense.

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The pandemic also delayed Kelly's federal trial in Chicago, which will take place after this one.

Why is R. Kelly already in jail?

In July 2019, a federal judge in Chicago ordered that Kelly be held in jail without bond after a prosecutor argued that if the singer "was attracted to middle school girls in 1999 then he's still attracted to middle school girls." Earlier this summer, Kelly was transferred from Chicago to New York for the trial.

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When did this all begin?

In 2000, Jim DeRogatis, then a music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, received a tip that Kelly, one of the most successful R&B artists of the 1990s, had a "problem" with young girls. DeRogatis teamed up with Sun-Times legal affairs reporter Abdon Pallasch to investigate the tip, and they discovered multiple lawsuits from the previous decade that accused Kelly of sexually abusing girls.

The Sun-Times published an exposé that December, and DeRogatis became the main journalist on the story. A couple years later, he received a videotape in the mail that seemed to depict Kelly abusing an underage girl. The tape was central to Kelly's 2008 child pornography trial, though a jury cleared him of the charges after the defense team argued the identity of the girl was inconclusive.

Years later, the lawyer who led Kelly's defense told the Sun-Times that Kelly was "guilty as hell."

How does Aaliyah figure into this?

After working with Aaliyah on her debut record, "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number," Kelly married the up-and-coming R&B singer - in 1994, when she was 15 and he was 27. DeRogatis and Pallasch reported that Aaliyah ended the illegal marriage after her family and the public discovered it.

Vibe magazine stated in its December 1994/January 1995 issue that an Illinois marriage certificate listed Aaliyah's age as 18. In December 2019, more than 20 years after the marriage - and 18 years after Aaliyah died in a plane crash - federal prosecutors in Brooklyn accused Kelly of having bribed a government official to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah so she would appear to be an adult.

The brief marriage to Aaliyah is often brought up as the most prominent example of Kelly having had inappropriate and/or illegal relationships with younger women.

What led to this moment of reckoning?

In November 2016, DeRogatis received another tip - an email from a woman in Georgia who believed her daughter, Joy, to be part of a sex cult run by Kelly. The mother, Jonjelyn Savage, claimed Kelly was controlling the lives of six young women in an Atlanta suburb. DeRogatis soon heard from another set of parents and corroborated their stories by speaking to nearly a dozen other sources.

DeRogatis continued reporting and, after an arduous search for a publication willing to run the story, published his second exposé with BuzzFeed News in July 2017. Among those he spoke to on the record were former members of Kelly's inner circle - Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones and Asante McGee - who said, per DeRogatis, that "six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records."

"In stark contrast to the first Kelly story that Pallasch and I published in the dead-tree Sun-Times in December 2000 - a dramatically different era - the cult story instantly spread far and wide thanks to social media," DeRogatis reflected in his book "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly."

In January 2019, in the wake of the #MeToo movement's resurgence, Lifetime released a six-part docuseries titled "Surviving R. Kelly" that took a sweeping look at the years of allegations against him. Roughly 1.9 million people tuned into the premiere, high ratings that led to renewed public and legal interest. A prosecutor in Chicago put out a call for potential victims or witnesses to come forward in the days after "Surviving R. Kelly" premiered. The next month, Kelly was charged with sexual abuse.

What is R. Kelly accused of in Chicago?

Cook County prosecutors charged Kelly in February 2019 with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse over incidents that allegedly took place between 1998 and 2010 and involved four victims, three of whom were between 13 and 16 years old. Each count carries a sentence of three to seven years.

In July 2019, Kelly was arrested after the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Illinois filed an indictment related to many of the allegations outlined by DeRogatis. Kelly was charged with child pornography, enticing a minor to engage in criminal sexual activity and obstruction of justice.

The federal indictment was revised in February 2020 to include another victim.

What about in New York?

The same day as news of the Illinois indictment broke in July 2019, federal prosecutors in New York City unsealed a different five-count indictment that accused Kelly of leading a racketeering enterprise for two decades, from 1999 onward. A letter filed that day from the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York stated that Kelly had participated in "the sexual exploitation of children, coercing and transporting women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity, kidnapping and forced labor."

The superseding indictment from March 2020 added five counts of racketeering and four concerning violations of the Mann Act.

In July, the Associated Press reported that prosecutors claimed Kelly also abused, threatened or mistreated a dozen additional people, including an underage boy. The allegations have not resulted in any additional charges.

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