In the landmark conclusion to the most high-profile trial to arise from the music industry in the #MeToo era, a jury found R. Kelly guilty on all nine federal sex trafficking and racketeering charges. The verdict was announced Monday in the Brooklyn courthouse for the Eastern District of New York. The disgraced R&B singer, 54, faces 10 years, the mandatory minimum, to life in prison for the charges related to nearly 30 years’ worth of allegations that he physically and sexually abused women and minors.
The verdict followed five weeks of often-harrowing testimony from 50 witnesses and arrived swiftly on the second day of jury deliberations. Kelly was found guilty on one count of racketeering, a charge that is often levied in organized crime cases, and eight of violating the Mann Act, which is aimed at curbing sex trafficking. He still faces additional federal charges of sexual assault and abuse in Illinois.
Kelly’s legal team did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment on the verdict. Kelly, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, previously denied the charges. In footage from outside the courthouse, Kelly’s lawyer Deveraux Cannick said his client “was not anticipating this verdict.” Cannick also stated that the team would consider an appeal, according to a CNN reporter.
Gloria Allred, who represented three accusers, described Kelly as the “worst” of “all the predators that I have pursued” throughout her 47 years of practicing law.
“R. Kelly thought that he could get away with all of this, but he didn’t,” Allred said outside the courthouse. “Because despite the fact that he thought he could control all of his victims, he was wrong.”
The 45 prosecutorial witnesses described an elaborate system of abuse bolstered by Kelly’s immense fame and professional power, as well as by the cooperation of his employees and close associates. As widely described in reports from the trial, numerous accusers testified that they were underage when they met Kelly, whom they said went on to control their lives.
In all, 11 accusers testified. A woman identified as “Jane” stated that she was forced into sexual encounters with other women and was unable to leave rooms without Kelly’s permission. Another, Jerhonda Pace, said he assaulted her and knowingly gave her herpes — an assertion seemingly backed by a personal physician who took the stand to discuss Kelly’s medical history.
Jane also said that Kelly forced her to have an abortion. The same day as Jane’s testimony, a woman who spoke in court anonymously said Kelly once told her he married Aaliyah in 1994, when the up-and-coming singer was 15, so that she could legally obtain an abortion. Multiple witnesses made mention of Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001. A woman named Angela said she saw Kelly sexually abuse Aaliyah on a tour bus, when Aaliyah would have been around 13 years old.
The racketeering charge made it possible for prosecutors to present more evidence to the jury — therefore painting a fuller picture than they might have been able to present had the charges against Kelly been limited to individual instances of alleged assault or abuse.
The defense called on five witnesses, a few of whom worked for Kelly and at first denied having seen him associate with underage girls. Upon cross-examination, such as with Kelly’s childhood friend and former bodyguard, prosecutors were able to expose discrepancies in the testimonies. An accountant who worked for Kelly recalled drafting a document that described the singer as the head of “RSK Enterprises,” a notable development given the criminal enterprise component of a racketeering charge.
New York Attorney General Letitia James tweeted Monday that “although nothing can ever make up for years of suffering, those individuals finally received some sense of justice today.” Kelly’s is the most high-profile sexual misconduct case since the resurgence of the #MeToo movement to mostly involve Black women. James added that “one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18 — far more than their white counterparts.”
“We must do more to protect, defend, and believe our girls before 30 years pass by,” she stated.
Chicago Tribune music writer Britt Julious said on Twitter that “multiple generations of Chicago women and girls have had to face this menace with no escape.”
“Every black girl I know who grew up here has an R. Kelly story,” she wrote. “EVERY ONE. I am glad those who have felt pain and faced trauma for DECADES may find peace with this verdict.”
This trial was not the first time Kelly wound up in court over alleged sexual misconduct; he was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008. But it marks a major turning point. The recording industry for years turned a blind eye to allegations of Kelly’s abusive behavior toward young women and girls, even after corroborated reporting such as the exposé that music critic and journalist Jim DeRogatis and then-legal reporter Abdon Pallasch published with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000.
Kelly continued to churn out hits and, as The Post reported in its own 2018 investigation, “disregard for the singer’s alleged behavior played out on many levels, from the billionaire record executive who first signed the dynamic young vocalist in the early 1990s to the low-paid assistants who arranged flights, food and bathroom breaks for his traveling entourage of young women.”
Published in July 2017, a second exposé by DeRogatis — sparked by a tip he received the previous year from a woman in Georgia who believed her daughter to be part of a sex cult run by Kelly — pointed at an organized system of abuse. The six-part Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired in January 2019, further explored the allegations following the resurgence of the #MeToo movement in the entertainment industry and beyond. (Producer Dream Hampton tweeted after Monday’s verdict that she was “grateful to the survivors. The ones who talked and the ones who didn’t.”)
In July 2019, Kelly was arrested on charges of child pornography, enticing a minor to engage in criminal sexual activity and obstruction of justice. He was charged in two federal indictments that month — one in Illinois and another in New York, the latter of which led to this trial.
The proceedings are far from over; Kelly’s sentencing is scheduled for May 4, 2022, and there is still the other federal trial. As his exact legal fate remains up in the air, so too does the public’s relationship with Kelly’s body of work. He dominated R&B for years, and some of his most famous hits, including chart-climbers “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Step in the Name of Love,” over time became ubiquitous at celebratory events.
Aspects of his work raised eyebrows before and have more recently been regarded by some as ignored signs — such as “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” the 1994 album he wrote and produced for Aaliyah when she was a teenager.
“How do you continue to listen to that or ‘Sex in the Kitchen’ or ‘Trapped in the Closet’ or [lyrics like] ‘I’m your sexasaurus’ or ‘stick your key in my ignition / beep beep’ and not take into account the countless … women whose lives were ruined by him?” DeRogatis said to The Post earlier this month. “How do you listen and take pleasure in his music and dismiss those ruined lives?”
The #MuteRKelly campaign, which was co-founded in 2017 by arts administrator Oronike Odeleye and social justice activist Kenyette Barnes, provides some insight into where things might go from here. The hashtag encourages the public — as well as radio stations — to stop supporting Kelly. It has trended on social media throughout the trial and again appeared after the verdict.
Many used the hashtag while thanking the campaign’s co-founders and the creators of “Surviving R. Kelly” for their relentless efforts. Others also made a point to highlight the dogged reporting DeRogatis has carried out for more than two decades now.
DeRogatis himself tweeted a thank-you Monday to Pallasch, who co-wrote the initial exposé, and Sun-Times editorial board member Mary Mitchell for inspiring him, “second only to all the brave young women who’ve trust[ed] me and us to tell their stories for 21 years.”
He added, “Took a much longer time to hit -30- on this story than we ever thought it would.”
Travis M. Andrews contributed to this report.
Decades of investigative reporting couldn’t touch R. Kelly. It took a Lifetime TV series and a hashtag.