NEW YORK (NewsNation Now) —R&B star R. Kelly is a predator who lured girls, boys and young women with his fame and dominated them physically, sexually and psychologically, a prosecutor said Wednesday, while a defense lawyer warned jurors they’ll have to sift through lies from accusers with agendas to find the truth.
Opening statements began in Kelly’s long-anticipated federal trial arising from years of allegations that he sexually abused women and girls while pursuing fame and fortune.
The charges claim Kelly was the ringleader of a two-decade scheme where he recruited women and underage girls for sex, including demanding they demonstrate “absolute commitment” and call him “Daddy”.
“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the Brooklyn jury as she explained the evidence to be revealed at his federal trial. “This case is about a predator.”
She said he distributed backstage passes to entice children and women to join him, sometimes at his home or studio, where he then “dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically.”
The prosecutor said Kelly would often record sex acts with minors as he controlled a racketeering enterprise of individuals who were loyal and devoted to him, eager to “fulfill each and everyone one of the defendant’s wishes and demands.”
“What his success and popularity brought him was access, access to girls, boys and young women,” she said.
But Kelly’s attorney, Nicole Blank Becker, portrayed her client as a victim of women, some of whom enjoyed the “notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they were with a superstar.”
“He didn’t recruit them. They were fans. They came to Mr. Kelly,” she said, urging jurors to closely scrutinize the testimony. “They knew exactly what they were getting into. It was no secret Mr. Kelly had multiple girlfriends. He was quite transparent.”
It would be a stretch to believe he orchestrated an elaborate criminal enterprise, like a mob boss, the lawyer said.
Becker warned jurors they’ll have to sort through “a mess of lies” from women with an agenda.
“Don’t assume everybody’s telling the truth,” she said.
The opening arguments came more than a decade after Kelly was acquitted in a 2008 child pornography case in Chicago. It was a reprieve that allowed his music career to continue until the #MeToo era caught up with him, emboldening alleged victims to come forward.
The women’s stories got wide exposure with the Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly.” The series explored how an entourage of supporters protected Kelly and silenced his victims for decades, foreshadowing a federal racketeering conspiracy case that landed in Kelly in jail in 2019.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn have lined up multiple female accusers — mostly referred to in court as “Jane Does” — and cooperating former associates who have never spoken publicly before about their experiences with Kelly.
They’re expected to offer testimony about how Kelly’s managers, bodyguards and other employees helped him recruit women and girls — and sometimes boys — for sexual exploitation. They say the group selected victims at concerts and other venues and arranged for them to travel to see Kelly in the New York City area and elsewhere, in violation of the Mann Act, the 1910 law that made it illegal to “transport any woman or girl” across state lines “for any immoral purpose.”
The three-time Grammy winner has pleaded not guilty and strongly denied wrongdoing.
Kelly, 54, is perhaps best known for his smash hit “I Believe I Can Fly,” a 1996 song that became an inspirational anthem played at school graduations, weddings, advertisements and elsewhere. Kelly last released a studio album in 2016.
An anonymous jury made up of seven men and five women have been sworn in to hear the case. The trial, coming after several delays due mostly to the pandemic, will unfold under coronavirus precautions restricting the press and the public to overflow courtrooms with video feeds.
The trial is expected to last about one month. Kelly could face decades in prison if convicted.
Even if he is acquitted, the New York case is only part of the legal peril facing the singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly. He still faces sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota, where he also pleaded not guilty.
Kelly has been jailed for more than two years. He was moved in June to Brooklyn from Chicago for the trial.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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