R. Kelly manipulated not only the women and girls in his orbit, but his own employees as well for more than two decades, prosecutors told jurors at the start of their closing arguments in Mr. Kelly’s criminal trial in New York.
“For many years, what happened in the defendant’s world stayed in the defendant’s world,” Elizabeth Geddes, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in her final arguments to jurors at Federal District Court in Brooklyn. “But no longer.”
The portrayal came at the end of a five-week trial that featured nearly a dozen accusations of physical and sexual abuse of women and underage girls and boys.
Ms. Geddes homed in early in her summation on the vast circle of employees, entourage members and managers who surrounded the singer across his career. She used a large blackboard with the photos of his accusers on one side and Mr. Kelly on the other, with a network of associates surrounding him, showing jurors that they played critical roles in enabling his abuse and allowing it to persist.
“Over the past two decades, the names of the individuals have changed. But their roles have remained the same,” Ms. Geddes said. “And from the beginning, the defendant has been the leader.”
She also described a system of control that entrapped his accusers and blocked them from speaking out.
Ms. Geddes said that system included letters written by Mr. Kelly’s accusers that she said were filled with lies absolving him of crimes. The letters were locked away because he intended to use them in the future, Ms. Geddes said.
When women “crossed him” and opted to go public with their allegations, Ms. Geddes said, Mr. Kelly “used his henchmen to lodge threats and exact revenge.”
Referencing a slide show playing in the courtroom for jurors, she directed their attention to the transcript of an audio clip they had heard during the trial. In the snippet, Mr. Kelly warned any accusers who he believed had stolen from him, saying “people get murdered” for that behavior, using an expletive.
“That was a threat,” Ms. Geddes said.
The racketeering charge itself and the unusual nature of the case against Mr. Kelly, once one of pop music’s biggest stars, has been a key target for his defense team.
Ms. Geddes painstakingly broke down the racketeering charge the singer faces for jurors. “The law recognizes when someone commits a crime as part of a group, he’s more powerful — more dangerous,” she explained, later adding that “without his inner circle, the defendant could not have carried out the crimes he carried out for as long as he did.”
Aaliyah, the R&B star whom R. Kelly married when she was just 15, figured prominently in the government’s closing argument against Mr. Kelly on Wednesday, as a federal prosecutor presented the pair’s illegal union as a criminal act underlying the racketeering charge.
The prosecutor, Elizabeth Geddes, an assistant U.S. attorney, revisited trial testimony about how Mr. Kelly took a hastily planned flight back to Chicago in August 1994 to deal with an emergency: He thought Aaliyah was pregnant with his child. His solution was to marry her to escape prosecution, and he needed his associates to bribe an Illinois employee to create fake identification for her.
That payment, Ms. Geddes said, is the first act in the racketeering charge. But Ms. Geddes also walked the jury through trial testimony about Mr. Kelly’s sexual abuse of the young singer, which she said was “part of the defendant’s pattern of racketeering.”
Aaliyah, whose full name was Aaliyah Dana Haughton, died in a plane crash in 2001. She and Mr. Kelly were introduced in 1992, when she was 13 years old, and she was the youngest girl that Mr. Kelly has been accused of abusing.
A former teenage backup performer for Mr. Kelly testified at trial that she saw Mr. Kelly, then in his mid-20s, performing oral sex on Aaliyah while on tour sometime around 1993. The backup performer testified that she, too, was sexually abused by Mr. Kelly as a teenager, and that he had wanted her to become Aaliyah’s friend.
Ms. Geddes described the circumstances leading to the 1994 marriage, and Mr. Kelly’s reasoning for the union: he wanted to compel Aaliyah to get an abortion. “No baby, no jail,” Ms. Geddes said.
She argued that Mr. Kelly was not an unaware bystander in the marriage plot carried out by his loyal staff, but rather the active force driving the criminal enterprise.
“Just because you have one of your henchmen do your dirty work doesn’t make you any less responsible,” she said. The marriage was annulled in 1995.
She also used the testimony about Aaliyah to show how teenage girls and Mr. Kelly’s staff and entourage had to behave in order to stay in his “inner circle.” Ms. Geddes cited trial testimony in which Mr. Kelly reportedly told witnesses that they had to “pick a team.”
Demetrius Smith, a former tour manager who accompanied Mr. Kelly to Chicago and took part in arranging for the marriage to go forward, testified that he was uneasy about Mr. Kelly’s relationship with the young singer. But Mr. Smith picked a team, Ms. Geddes said: “He wanted to stay in that inner circle, in that enterprise.”
After a five-week trial that included searing accusations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse against the superstar R&B singer R. Kelly, prosecutors began to offer their closing argument on Wednesday.
Although accusations of sexual misconduct have trailed Mr. Kelly for decades, the New York case is only the second to result in a criminal trial. (He was acquitted of a child pornography charge in 2008.)
The federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have constructed a sweeping racketeering case, with evidence that extends from recent years back to the early 1990s that seeks to portray the singer as the kingpin of a decades-long criminal enterprise that recruited women and girls for sex. Mr. Kelly is also charged with eight violations of the Mann Act, an interstate anti-sex trafficking law.
Mr. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Here are some of the most significant moments in the case and the trial:
Federal charges were first brought against Mr. Kelly in July 2019: More charges were filed within months, including allegations by a woman who had previously defended the singer. She testified under a pseudonym at the trial.
The pandemic delayed the trial for more than a year: Amid the wait, some of the singer’s allies were accused of using arson, bribery and other intimidation tactics to silence witnesses who were expected to testify.
The trial began on Aug. 18 with opening statements: Prosecutors said the singer “used every trick in the predator handbook” to mislead his accusers and their families. His lawyers argued that the accusers’ accounts would fall apart under scrutiny.
The 20th anniversary of the death of the R&B singer Aaliyah fell during the trial’s second week: Mr. Kelly’s illegal marriage to Aaliyah when she was 15 is central to the government’s case. Among the girls that prosecutors say he abused, she was the youngest.
The prosecution rested this week: After 45 witnesses testified for the government, Mr. Kelly’s lawyers offered their own smaller group of witnesses over two days. Observers watched closely to see whether a girlfriend of the singer who has recently expressed support for him would testify, but she was not called to the stand.
R. Kelly will not testify in his own defense at his trial in Brooklyn, the singer told the judge Wednesday morning.
For Mr. Kelly, whose long-awaited trial on racketeering and sex trafficking charges is nearing its end, taking the stand could have been perilous. After facing legal scrutiny in 2019, he lost his composure in a widely viewed interview with Gayle King of “CBS This Morning,” jumping out of his chair and pounding his chest on camera.
When asked if he understood the consequences of his decision, Mr. Kelly said: “Correct.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the 50th and final witness of the trial, Julius Darrington, who consulted on Mr. Kelly’s final, failed music project, testified for about 15 minutes. During his testimony, Mr. Darrington first told the jury he had worked with Mr. Kelly for about 10 to 12 hours “every day, almost,” starting in 2016 and lasting for about four years (Mr. Kelly was taken into custody in 2019 and has largely been detained ever since).
Mr. Darrington, who took the stand for the defense, said he had never seen Mr. Kelly abuse his girlfriends. But on cross-examination he admitted he knew little about Mr. Kelly’s personal life.
“In fact, you have no knowledge of what happened behind closed doors when you weren’t there, correct?” asked Nadia Shihata, an assistant U.S. attorney.
“Correct,” Mr. Darrington said.
Mr. Darrington’s testimony underscored the precipitous downfall of Mr. Kelly’s music career. Earlier testimony suggested that by January 2018, Mr. Kelly was in $12 million of debt. Prosecutors said in his final 18 months of freedom, he performed just three shows.
Many of the accusations of sexual misconduct and violence against R. Kelly would normally be too old to prosecute under the statute of limitations.
But because Mr. Kelly is charged with racketeering, prosecutors have been able to present evidence of uncharged criminal activity dating back decades, including Mr. Kelly’s illegal marriage to the singer Aaliyah when she was 15.
But the racketeering charge also requires prosecutors to show that Mr. Kelly was at the center of a criminal enterprise, and over the course of the trial, eight of his former employees have testified against him, including some under subpoena.
Working for the singer’s company, RSK Enterprises, a name that borrows from Mr. Kelly’s initials, the employees helped the singer turn his fame into an organized effort to solicit young girls for sex, prosecutors said.
To illustrate that enterprise, prosecutors introduced into evidence a document created by one of Mr. Kelly’s former accountants, John Holder. The document depicted a red octopus with “Robert S. Kelly” as the head, with his security and other associates as individual tentacles.
Diana Copeland, a former assistant to Mr. Kelly who worked for him on and off for about 15 years, said he would not allow his live-in girlfriends to get into an Uber if a man was driving. She told the jury that if a male driver pulled up, “I would have to call another one” — and keep calling until a female driver appeared.
Ms. Copeland also said her pay had been docked once after she scheduled appointments for two of Mr. Kelly’s live-in girlfriends at a nail salon where a man happened to work.
Tom Arnold, who worked for Mr. Kelly from 2003 to 2011 and sometimes drove female visitors to see the singer, testified that he had been told to “turn the rearview mirror up” to avoid accidentally getting a glimpse of his passengers.
He also described his attempts and those of other employees to procure women for Mr. Kelly by passing out the singer’s phone number so often that they sometimes typed up the digits and printed them in bulk.
A former assistant, Anthony Navarro, testified that when he had started working for Mr. Kelly in 2007, he was given a list of rules.
Among the most prominent: “I wasn’t supposed to be talking to any of the girls — the guests — who were coming into the house,” he said.
“It was almost like ‘The Twilight Zone,’” he recalled of the more than two years he spent working out of Mr. Kelly’s home. “You went into the gate, and it was like a different world, just a strange place.”
R. Kelly’s defense team rested its case Wednesday morning, but it remains unknown when a verdict might be reached in the singer’s long-awaited sex-trafficking and racketeering trial.
Closing arguments began Wednesday afternoon, starting with the prosecution team from the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, but it could be at least another day before the jury begins deliberations. Closing arguments in federal trials can run long; neither side has offered a ballpark estimate of how much time they need, but each could take hours, followed by rebuttals.
For prosecutors, closings are a chance to pull together weeks of witness testimony into a coherent narrative, and to argue that the evidence they have presented points in only one logical direction: guilt.
Mr. Kelly’s lawyers, in turn, will present their own narrative, revisiting apparent holes and inconsistencies in witness testimony, casting doubt on Mr. Kelly’s accusers’ motives, and trying to undermine the government’s case.
After the closings, U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly will instruct the jury in how they are to deliberate on the nine counts Mr. Kelly is charged with — one racketeering count and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, an anti-sex trafficking statute.
Jury instructions may seem dry, but the judge’s words to the jury as she gives them the case are important, and they are often carefully litigated. For example, in recent days, R. Kelly’s lawyers and federal prosecutors have gone back and forth in court filings about how they would like Judge Donnelly to explain the nuances of the racketeering charge, and possible defenses to claims of Mr. Kelly’s abuse of underage girls.
Judge Donnelly has said she expects the jury to have the case by the end of the week.
After that, it is anybody’s guess. Old courthouse “wisdom” sometimes holds that long trials lead to long jury deliberations, but in at least one recent case in Brooklyn federal court, that did not happen: The 2019 racketeering and sex-trafficking trial of Keith Raniere, founder of the Nxivm sex cult, lasted six weeks — and the jury found him guilty in less than a day.
Courthouse gadflies also like to say that the longer deliberations stretch out, the better the outlook for defendants.
One of the key figures at the center of R. Kelly’s trial in Brooklyn is another R&B star: Aaliyah, whom Mr. Kelly married when she was 15 years old.
Several witnesses during the trial have testified about the singers’ time together. Demetrius Smith, Mr. Kelly’s former tour manager, said he watched Mr. Kelly and Aaliyah make music together at her parents’ Detroit home in 1992, and the singers soon began to work together closely.
Mr. Smith testified that he had soon become concerned about the tone of Mr. Kelly’s public encounters with the girl, which he called “overplayful.”
“Robert, you ain’t messing with Aaliyah?” he recalled asking Mr. Kelly one day.
He got his answer when Mr. Kelly approached him shortly before taking the stage one night during a 1994 tour.
“Aaliyah is in trouble, man,” Mr. Smith testified that Mr. Kelly told him, and the two men arranged a flight back to Illinois. Later, on the plane, Mr. Smith said, Mr. Kelly explained the problem: “She thinks she’s pregnant.”
Mr. Smith testified that Mr. Kelly and another member of his staff hatched a plan for the two singers to get married so that Mr. Kelly could avoid potential prosecution for having sex with a minor.
Mr. Smith said he objected to the plan but eventually helped enable it by securing a fake ID for Aaliyah that listed her as 18, opening the door to the marriage. After obtaining a marriage license, Mr. Kelly and the group made their way to a hotel and called a minister.
The minister who married R. Kelly and Aaliyah in 1994 testified virtually about the 10-minute ceremony, which was held at a Sheraton Hotel in the Chicago area.
The minister, the Rev. Nathan J. Edmond, said that his testimony was the first time he had talked publicly about the illegal marriage.
“I looked at the marriage license,” Mr. Edmond told the jury. “It was an official marriage license from Cook County.”
The marriage was annulled the next year. Aaliyah, whose full legal name was Aaliyah Dana Haughton, died in a plane crash in 2001. She is known in court documents as Jane Doe No. 1.
For close to three decades, R. Kelly has been trailed by a steady stream of sexual abuse accusations shared widely within the music industry. Those allegations became public at his 2008 trial in Chicago, when Mr. Kelly faced 14 counts in a high-profile child pornography case that centered on a videotape that prosecutors said showed him having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Mr. Kelly, who pleaded not guilty, faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
But the girl in the case refused to testify, and after seven and a half hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Mr. Kelly of all charges. In that case, five jurors told reporters that the absence of testimony from the girl in the video was impossible to overcome.
“All of us felt the grayness of the case,” one juror said.
That trial excluded accusations made by other girls and their parents, who said Mr. Kelly had used his fame to lure them into his sphere to have sex with them.
But Mr. Kelly’s trial in Brooklyn has included testimony from several of the women at the center of the charges against him. They took the stand — the first time Mr. Kelly’s accusers have testified against him in a criminal case — and shared searing accounts of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by the singer.
Prosecutors were also able to make a broader case against Mr. Kelly through a racketeering charge, a tactic that’s also been used in other high-profile trials, including the case against the leader of the Nxivm sex cult, Keith Raniere.
And the rise of the Me Too movement in the years before Mr. Kelly’s trial changed public perceptions about allegations of sexual assault.
No matter the outcome of his federal trial in Brooklyn, R. Kelly still faces state and federal indictments in two other states, all stemming from what prosecutors describe as the R&B star’s sexual abuse of women and underage girls.
Federal prosecutors in Chicago hit Mr. Kelly in July 2019 with child pornography and obstruction charges. That trial has been pushed back several times because of the pandemic, and to allow Mr. Kelly’s Brooklyn trial to go first.
In February 2019, months before federal charges were announced, the Cook County state’s attorney indicted Mr. Kelly on aggravated criminal sexual abuse charges involving four victims, three of whom were underage at the time. Mr. Kelly has denied the allegations.
The state trial, a date for which has not been set, would be Mr. Kelly’s second criminal trial in Cook County — in 2008, he was acquitted on 14 counts of child pornography charges.
In Minnesota, Mr. Kelly was charged in August 2019 with engaging in prostitution with a minor. The following month, a Minneapolis judge issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Kelly after he failed to show up for a court hearing there. Prosecutors there said at the time that they weren’t likely to get access to Mr. Kelly until the Chicago charges were resolved, according to local news reports.