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R. Kelly

How did R. Kelly get here?

Here’s what you need to know about the singer’s trial as opening arguments commence

With opening arguments about to start in R. Kelly’s federal trial, there have been so many twists, changes and revelations in the case that it’s hard to keep up. So here’s a quick primer on what’s brought us to this point and what to expect.

How did we get here?

R. Kelly, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, has faced accusations of victimizing minors for decades. The first public scandal came in the mid-’90s when 27-year-old R. Kelly had a relationship with the teenage R&B star Aaliyah. R. Kelly and Aaliyah were married in secret in 1994 when she was only 15. The marriage certificate surfaced soon after, even as R. Kelly and Aaliyah remained evasive about the relationship in public.

Their marriage would end in 1995.

In 2002, a 27-minute tape that allegedly showed R. Kelly engaging in sexual intercourse with an underage girl surfaced online. R. Kelly finally went to trial in 2008 for 18 counts of sexual abuse and one child pornography charge related to the tape. The trial was a massive story, dominating pop culture references from Chappelle’s Show to The Boondocks.

The jury saw the video, but there was a dispute over the girl’s age at the time the clip was made. Although 14 witnesses identified her, she refused to testify and the jury found R. Kelly not guilty.

Over the next decade, R. Kelly would continue his career, releasing albums, touring and collaborating with other artists. Then in 2017, BuzzFeed ran an exposé of R. Kelly’s “cult” of young women. In 2019, the documentary Surviving R. Kelly was released, detailing more allegations that R. Kelly abused girls. In 2019, he was arrested on federal charges, including kidnapping and child pornography. He’s been in jail in Illinois since then.

Why isn’t the trial in Chicago?

R. Kelly is currently facing two federal cases, one in Chicago and one in Brooklyn, New York, for separate offenses. The trial in Brooklyn is for nine counts of racketeering and eight violations of the Mann Act, which bans sex trafficking across state lines. As part of the indictment, R. Kelly is charged with knowingly infecting a girl with herpes without disclosing he had it. The New York case names six victims, three of them underage. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

The Chicago trial, which will start sometime after the Brooklyn case wraps up, charges R. Kelly with child pornography and obstruction of justice. The obstruction of justice charge is related to the 2008 trial in which R. Kelly was acquitted. Prosecutors allege that R. Kelly paid witnesses to change their statements in that case.

In all, R. Kelly is facing 22 federal charges alleging 11 victims. The crimes span 1994 to 2018.

He also has two criminal charges in Minnesota alleging prostitution with a minor from an incident in 2001. There’s no date set for that trial as of yet.

What’s going on with R. Kelly’s lawyers? 

R. Kelly has had substantial turnover and drama with his representation leading up to his trial. In June, with the New York trial right around the corner, two of his top lawyers, Steve Greenberg and Michael Leonard, moved to withdraw from the case. They stated that it was “impossible” to work with R. Kelly’s new lawyers, Nicole Blank Becker and Thomas Farinella. Greenberg, whose most notable previous trial was a failed defense of Drew Peterson, who was found guilty of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, had been taking the lead on R. Kelly’s case since allegations sprang back up in the wake of the Surviving R. Kelly documentary. Becker and Farinella instead claimed that R. Kelly had already fired Greenberg and Leonard.

What about these new allegations?

In July, prosecutors filed a new indictment in the New York case with allegations involving new victims, including two underage boys. The indictment alleges that R. Kelly sexually abused a 17-year-old boy he met at a Chicago McDonald’s in 2006. The filings state that the boy introduced R. Kelly to a second boy, who was 16. The allegations also state that R. Kelly coerced the second boy to have sex with women on camera.

The prosecutors also allege that R. Kelly tried to bribe a Cook County clerk in 2019 to get information about evidence against him after the release of Surviving R. Kelly. Included is a phone recording allegedly catching R. Kelly and an associate discussing paying the clerk $2,500. Prosecutors also have more evidence detailing R. Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah when she was underage.

Who is the judge?

District Court Judge Ann Donnelly was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2014. It didn’t take long for her to become a national figure. In January 2017, Donnelly became the first judge to rule against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.

Could R. Kelly be found not guilty again?

R. Kelly’s defense certainly has a more difficult battle than they did in 2008. Back then, they had to disprove one video. This case encapsulates decades of offenses. R. Kelly is being charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was originally created to prosecute mob bosses. The prosecution is characterizing R. Kelly and his entourage’s interstate recruitment of minors as a criminal enterprise led by R. Kelly. Donnelly has already dismissed R. Kelly’s team’s motion to remove the RICO angle.

Instead of trying to combat one video and one woman’s identity, R. Kelly’s defense has to fight a battle on many fronts, all of the allegations and R. Kelly’s role in it all. The defense will try to assert that this was not a criminal enterprise, that there was no organized recruitment of women and that R. Kelly wasn’t any kind of ringleader.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.