CHICAGO - R. Kelly kept an ugly side of his life hidden as he escaped poverty in Chicago and rose to pop music stardom, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday at the singer’s trial on charges accusing him of enticing girls for sex and rigging a 2008 child pornography case.
Kelly’s lead attorney implored jurors during her opening statement at the federal trial in Chicago not to accept what she said was the prosecution’s portrayal of her client as "a monster."
Going back to the 1990s, much of the world knew Kelly solely by his hit songs, including the chart-topping inspirational anthem "I Believe I Can Fly," U.S. Assistant Attorney Jason Julien said. But "Kelly had another side … a hidden side, a dark side," he added. "This trial is about Kelly’s hidden side."
Kelly, 55, faces multiple charges, including enticing of minors for sex, producing child pornography and rigging his 2008 child pornography trial at which he was acquitted.
Kelly, who has denied any wrongdoing, has been trailed for decades by complaints and allegations about his sexual behavior. The scrutiny intensified after the #MeToo era and the 2019 six-part documentary "Surviving R. Kelly" that detailed sex abuse allegations involving women and teenage girls.
Defense attorney Jennifer Bonjean told jurors that Kelly, in part because of intellectual challenges that included illiteracy, was forced to rely on others as his career took off and that he was sometimes led astray by those in his circle of associates.
"Mr. Kelly can also be a victim," she said.
A conviction in Chicago could add decades to a 30-year prison sentence he already received from a New York federal judge for charges that he used his fame to sexually abuse other young fans.
Sitting at a defense table as the prosecutor spoke, Kelly occasionally shook his head as Julien described Kelly manipulating and controlling girls — even beating them if they didn’t comply with strict rules that included calling him "daddy."
Julien sought to give jurors a sense of the scale of Kelly’s alleged exploitation, saying he "repeatedly" had sex with girls who were just 14, 15 and 16 years old — "multiple girls, hundreds of times."
He told jurors that the evidence includes at least three videos showing Kelly having sex with underage girls.
"We’re not going to play hours of child pornography and make you watch it," the prosecutor said, explaining they would see excerpts. He added: "The videos are difficult to watch. But it is important to watch ... to understand what happened."
Later Wednesday, prosecutors entered into evidence video that was at the center of Kelly’s 2008 trial, but did not play any of it for jurors before court ended for the day. Prosecutors contend the video Kelly having sex with a girl no older than 14 when he was around 30.
Kelly nodded his head in agreement when his lawyer told jurors Kelly isn’t looking for special treatment — just a fair trial.
"When the government wants to paint him as a monster … you remember we are talking about a human being," Bonjean said.
She said jurors should not succumb to what she called "a mob justice climate" surrounding Kelly, alluding to "Surviving R. Kelly" and years of harsh social media accounts of him.
"It is true that Mr. Kelly is imperfect," she said. "On his journey from poverty to stardom, he stumbled along the way." But, she said, she was confident jurors would ultimately find him not guilty.
After jurors acquitted Kelly at his state trial in 2008, some later explained that they felt they had no choice because the girl did not testify. The woman, now 37 and referred to in court filings as "Minor 1," will be the government’s star witness. During the trial, she will be referred to by a single pseudonym, "Jane," in court.
The first people to testify were a psychologist, a music executive and a former Chicago police detective who first obtained the video of Minor 1 in the early 2000s. The detective was expected to resume his testimony Thursday morning. At one point during Wednesday’s testimony, prosecutors played about a minute of "I Believe I Can Fly" as they sought to establish how popular Kelly was in the the ’90s heading into the 2000s.
A central focus of the trial will be whether Kelly threatened and paid off Minor 1. That’s the allegation underpinning one of the charges against Kelly, conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Kelly also faces four counts of enticement of minors for sex — one each for four other accusers. They, too, are expected to testify.
Two Kelly associates, Derrel McDavid and Milton Brown, are co-defendants. McDavid is accused of helping Kelly fix the 2008 trial, while Brown is charged with receiving child pornography. Like Kelly, they also have denied wrongdoing.
The jury was impaneled Tuesday night with prosecutors and defense attorneys arguing toward the end of the process about whether the government was improperly attempting to keep some Black people off the jury. Kelly is Black.
About half the 12 jurors impaneled were identified as Black by the judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys. There are also five alternates.