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Decades of abuse allegations lead R&B superstar R. Kelly back in front of a jury

While Kelly’s 2008 acquittal may linger in many minds, he faces a far more perilous legal challenge this time, in federal court. Not even a full acquittal would necessarily set him free.

R. Kelly walks into the Daley Center in Chicago for a hearing in a child support case in March 2019.
R. Kelly walks into the Daley Center in Chicago for a hearing in a child support case in March 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Thirteen years have passed since R&B superstar R. Kelly broke down in tears in the middle of a Cook County courtroom and began to pray.

It was June 13, 2008. Kelly’s trial on child pornography charges had finally come to an end. And even the singer’s defense team seemed shocked when jurors cleared Kelly of 14 counts. Kelly answered each verdict with the words, “Thank you, Jesus.”

“Jury lets Kelly fly,” read the Chicago Sun-Times headline the next day.

Now, Kelly is preparing to meet another set of jurors Monday in Brooklyn, where he is set to go to trial all over again. And while the 2008 verdict may linger in many minds, the imprisoned singer faces a far more perilous legal challenge this time, in federal court.

Not even a full acquittal in Brooklyn would necessarily set him free.

That’s because Kelly, once considered the most important R&B singer and songwriter of his generation, faces serious criminal charges in multiple jurisdictions, including in Chicago, where a federal judge ordered him detained in 2019. That case will still be waiting.

“The [U.S. Attorney’s] office in Chicago’s not just going to give that case away,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who is now senior managing director in Chicago of Guidepost Solutions.

That makes the trial in the Eastern District of New York merely a first step in Kelly’s quest to clear his name. And it won’t be an easy one. Kelly faces a sweeping racketeering indictment there alleging that his employees and others helped him recruit women and girls for illegal sex, as well as to produce child pornography.

Opening statements in the trial are set for Aug. 18.

Kelly, 54, has long denied abusing anyone. His lawyers and outspoken fans on social media have repeatedly questioned his accusers’ credibility and say he’s been framed.

“We are looking forward to the truth prevailing,” Kelly’s lawyers said in a recent statement.

The case against Kelly is also unusual in its use of the federal racketeering law to prosecute a superstar within the freewheeling world of popular music — famously known for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

“I don’t know if it’s unique in the world of music,” Cramer said. “But it’s unique in the courthouse.”

The New York indictment spans roughly a quarter century and involves six alleged victims. The earliest claims involve Kelly’s much-publicized 1994 marriage, when he was 27, to the late singer Aaliyah Haughton, who was 15 at the time.

The earliest allegations against R. Kelly center on his 1994 marriage to Aaliyah Haughton. Kelly was 27; Aaliyah, shown here in a 2001 photo, was 15.
The earliest allegations against R. Kelly center on his 1994 marriage to Aaliyah Haughton. Kelly was 27; Aaliyah 15.
AP file photo

The feds say two of the six alleged victims have not spoken publicly. And prosecutors say they want to tell jurors about several additional uncharged allegations, involving at least 15 other victims dating as far back as 1991.

Kelly’s lawyers have recently said they were “blindsided” by some of those additional claims and insisted they should not be allowed into the trial.

Meanwhile, the feds say they also want to tell jurors about the 2008 trial in Cook County that ended with Kelly’s famous acquittal, in part to fend off questions about why Kelly’s alleged victims did not come forward sooner.

Kelly “was once charged with sexually exploiting a minor, there was a video widely believed to feature [Kelly] with a minor and the jury acquitted him,” prosecutors wrote.

That’s necessary background, they said, to understand “why some of his victims long opted against reporting his conduct.”

Born Robert Sylvester Kelly on Jan. 8, 1967, Kelly is remembered as a shy child who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. But the musical talent he would later discover at Hyde Park’s Kenwood Academy was unmistakable.

He reportedly collected $400 one day while performing for spare change on Chicago L platforms and was discovered for Jive Records while singing at a barbecue in the Pill Hill neighborhood.

R. Kelly in the recording studio in February 1998.
Sun-Times file

Kelly released his first album with the group Public Announcement in 1992. A year later, it had sold a million copies. His fame skyrocketed from there. He would go on to produce “You Are Not Alone” for Michael Jackson. He won three Grammys for his biggest hit, “I Believe I Can Fly,” from the soundtrack for the movie “Space Jam,” starring Michael Jordan. And in 2002, Kelly performed at the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

In 1994, Kelly also produced the debut album for his protégé, 15-year-old Aaliyah Haughton, featuring the title track, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.”

Aaliyah has been described as one of the few people Kelly ever truly loved. On Aug. 31, 1994, he surprised Aaliyah by taking her to a room at the Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont, where a minister waited. A certificate would then be filed with the Cook County clerk, documenting Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah, who it falsely said was 18.

That event 27 years ago is expected to become part of the New York trial. Prosecutors allege that Kelly sexually abused Aaliyah and thought she had become pregnant. They say he then married her so she could not be forced to testify against him.

The marriage would later be annulled, and Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001. Kelly’s lawyers argue it would be unfair to suggest Aaliyah was sexually abused by Kelly because she can’t be — and never was — cross-examined on the subject. But the feds say they plan to call a witness who claims to have seen sexual contact between Kelly and Aaliyah when Aaliyah was 13.

The certificate from the August 1994 marriage became public later that same year, but it wasn’t until December 2000 that serious allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against Kelly in the media. That’s when then-Sun-Times journalists Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch reported that Kelly had used his fame to have sex with girls as young as 15.

Early in 2002, a 26-minute, 39-second videotape would be sent anonymously to the Sun-Times. It allegedly showed Kelly performing sex acts with an underage girl. The newspaper turned it over to Chicago police, who began to investigate.

A Cook County grand jury indicted Kelly on child pornography charges in June 2002. But when the case went to trial in 2008, the girl who purportedly appeared in the tape refused to testify.

Jurors said her refusal was key to their decision to find Kelly not guilty.

The 2008 verdict meant Kelly was free to pursue his successful career. But then came the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017, followed by the release in January 2019 of the Lifetime documentary series, “Surviving R. Kelly.” It leveled further sexual abuse allegations against the star.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced that she was “sickened” by what she saw in the series and, in an unusual move, urged possible victims to “please come forward.” The following month, Kelly would again be charged by Cook County prosecutors, this time with aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

R. Kelly surrenders to authorities at Chicago Police Department’s Central District in February 2019.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

It only got worse for Kelly from there. In July 2019, federal prosecutors revealed indictments against Kelly in Chicago and New York. Authorities arrested Kelly while he was walking his dog outside Trump Tower in Chicago, where he lived.

Kelly has been behind bars ever since, spending most of that time in Chicago’s downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center. In June, he was moved to a detention center in Brooklyn.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic repeatedly thwarted efforts to put Kelly on trial in 2020. One year ago, it wasn’t clear when — or how — Kelly’s trial would ultimately happen.

Even now, the trial in New York will be subject to rules that would have been considered highly unusual before the pandemic. Only jurors and parties to the case will be allowed inside the courtroom, officials say. The press and public will instead be allowed to view a livestream of the trial in two overflow courtrooms.

Such guidelines have become more common with the resumption of jury trials amid the pandemic, though some public access to a trial courtroom is still typically granted.

Prosecutors have sought to protect the identities of some of Kelly’s alleged victims. And U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly has agreed to keep jurors anonymous — a move typically reserved for mob or street-gang trials.

R. Kelly walks with attorneys and supporters into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in March 2019.
R. Kelly walks with attorneys and supporters into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in March 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Even if Kelly wins acquittal in New York, his legal jeopardy will not be over. Nor would he necessarily be allowed out of federal custody. U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber in Chicago ordered Kelly’s detention pending trial in July 2019, and the judge denied Kelly’s request to reconsider that decision in October 2020.

Kelly’s lawyers would likely try again to spring the singer if he beats the New York case, but he would still face serious charges here.

The indictment waiting for Kelly in Chicago alleges child pornography and obstruction of justice, claiming Kelly illegally thwarted his 2008 trial in Cook County.

It alleges Kelly worked with two employees at the time — Derrel McDavid and Milton “June” Brown — to beat the case. Prosecutors say that Kelly, McDavid and others intimidated the alleged victim in the central videotape, persuading her and her father to lie to police and a grand jury.

But when a prosecutor here laid out the case against Kelly for Leinenweber in 2019, she said the alleged victim from the 2008 trial had decided to cooperate against Kelly. That news came more than a decade after jurors acquitted Kelly and then pointed to her refusal to testify against him.

“She has now gone on record,” the prosecutor told the judge.

R. Kelly walks into the Daley Center in Chicago for a hearing in a child support case in March 2019.
R. Kelly walks into the Daley Center in Chicago for a hearing in a child support case in March 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times