R.Kelly is a “predator” who demanded absolute fealty from the many women and underage girls he dominated in a two-decade racketeering scheme, a federal prosecutor has told the beginning of the R&B star’s sex abuse trial.
Kelly’s defence team countered that the government’s case had “gaps” and the 54-year-old singer’s accusers were unhappy former fans who wanted to get back at him because their relationships didn’t work out.
In her opening statement on Wednesday US time), Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told a jury of seven men and five women in Brooklyn federal court that Kelly used “lies, manipulation, threats and physical abuse” to control his victims, and often filmed their sexual encounters.
The indictment describes Kelly’s alleged dealings with six women and girls, four underage at the time. They include the late singer Aaliyah, who was 15 when she married Kelly.
“This case is about a predator,” Ms Melendez said. “This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot.”
Kelly’s lawyer Nicole Blank Becker rejected prosecutors’ claims, saying the accusers’ relationships with Kelly were consensual.
“They knew exactly what they were getting into,” Ms Becker said.
Kelly, a three-time Grammy winner whose songs include I Believe I Can Fly and Bump N’ Grind, has pleaded not guilty to a nine-count indictment that includes accusations of bribery and extortion. He has strongly denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutors will argue that Kelly, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, used an entourage of managers, bodyguards and others to recruit victims, sometimes at concerts.
Ms Melendez said Kelly would require victims to get his permission before doing virtually anything, including going to the toilet, and blackmail them by threatening to release self-incriminating letters he forced them to write if they fled.
The first prosecution witness, Jerhonda Pace, 28, testified that Kelly knew she was 16 when they had intercourse because she had shown him identification.
Ms Pace, known as Jane Doe No.4 in the indictment, said Kelly told her to tell people she was 19, and to act 21.
“He told me he was going to train me to please him sexually,” Ms Pace, who is married and expecting her fifth child soon, testified.
Other female accusers and at least one male accuser are expected to testify for the government, with some using only their first names.
The trial was delayed several times by the coronavirus pandemic and is expected to last about one month.
It is the culmination of years of suspicions and accusations against Kelly, many discussed in the 2019 Lifetime documentary Surviving R.Kelly, and nearly four years after the start of the #MeToo era.
Kelly has been jailed for more than two years, and could face decades in prison if convicted.
Even if he is acquitted, he still faces sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota, where he has also pleaded not guilty.