R. Kelly’s defense team is expected to get their chance to explain to a federal jury In New York on Thursday why they think prosecutors have failed to prove that the Chicago-born R&B star is the head of a racketeering enterprise aimed at satisfying his illegal sexual appetites.
After nearly six weeks of testimony from some 50 witnesses, closing arguments in the case began Wednesday, with prosecutors telling the jury the singer for years “used his money and public persona to hide his crimes in plain sight.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes will wrap up her argument Thursday morning. When she’s done, Kelly attorney Deveraux Cannick is expected to use his turn before the jury to argue that Kelly’s accusers are lying, motivated by jealousy or profit, and that prosecutors have failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an enterprise existed or that Kelly used it to facilitate any crime.
Cannick’s argument will be followed by the prosecution’s rebuttal and then jury deliberations, possibly as soon as Thursday afternoon.
Kelly, 54, was charged in an indictment filed in in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn in 2019 with heading a criminal enterprise that employed agents, runners, bodyguards and others to lure and trap girls and young women to satisfy his sexually predatory desires.
He faces decades in prison if convicted of the main racketeering charge, though the jury could decide to convict on lesser charges of kidnapping or violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits traveling over state lines for illegal sexual acts.
Geddes’ 3 1/2 hours of argument on Wednesday featured a large poster board display set up in the middle of U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly’s courtroom, which included a mug shot of Kelly in the center an various members of his ever-revolving entourage surrounding him.
Geddes said that the organization had legitimate goals, mainly to promote Kelly’s brand and sell his records. But it also had a dark purpose, to recruit and groom girls, boys, and young women to satisfy his illegal sexual urges, she said.
To further that goal, Kelly depended on his team to keep victims in line, the prosecutor said. They helped keep them confined to rooms in his Olympia Fields mansion, handed out copies of Kelly’s bizarre “rules,” carried backpacks filled with iPads Kelly used to film sexual encounters, and even offered condoms to one victim before she went in to see Kelly, Geddes said.
“The names have changed, but their roles have remained the same since the beginning,” Geddes said. “For many years, what happened in the defendant’s world stayed in the defendant’s world. … Without his inner circle, (Kelly) could not have carried the crimes for as long as he did.”
The prosecutor methodically reviewed the racketeering charge and many of the 14 underlying criminal acts Kelly is alleged to have committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. She stitched together testimony from alleged victims and other witnesses with corroborating evidence such as phone records, text messages, and DNA tests to paint a picture of Kelly as controlling and sexually violent predator who, as one former runner testified, operated in sort of a depraved “Twilight Zone.”
“The defendant was more than just a part of an enterprise, he was its leader,” Geddes said.
As Geddes spoke, Kelly, dressed in a blue suit and wearing thick black eyeglasses and a face mask, looked down at the defense table, occasionally scribbling notes.
Before closing arguments began, Kelly officially confirmed Wednesday that he did not wish to testify in his own defense — a decision that had been widely anticipated as it would have subjected him to an undoubtedly rigorous cross-examination from prosecutors.
When Donnelly asked him if he’d had a chance to speak with his attorneys about the decision, Kelly said, “Yes ma’am, your honor.”
As in most criminal trials, the bulk of the defense’s case has come out in cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.
Meanwhile, in her closing argument Wednesday afternoon, Geddes spent nearly an hour dissecting one of the key racketeering acts in the indictment: The alleged bribery of an Illinois public aid official to obtain a phony ID so he could marry phenom singer Aaliyah in 1994, when she was just 15.
Geddes pointed to the reluctant testimony of Kelly’s former tour manager, Demetrius Smith who told the jury near the beginning of the trial that he and Kelly left a tour in Georgia and had flown to O’Hare International Airport for the quick wedding ceremony, which occurred at a Sheraton Hotel near the airport with Kelly and Aaliyah wearing matching sweatpants.
She cited other testimony that Kelly had decided to marry Aaliyah because he believed he’d impregnated her and wanted legal cover. He also wanted her to have an abortion, Geddes said.
“We all know what the defendant was thinking: No baby, no jail,” Geddes said.
Geddes later reviewed testimony about other victims, including Jerhonda Pace, the prosecution’s first witness in the trial, who testified that she and Kelly had a six-month sexual relationship in 2009 when she was just 16. Pace had met Kelly months earlier at his first criminal trial in Cook County, where he was acquitted of child pornography charges.
Geddes also detailed the testimony from Stephanie, who said she met the singer at a McDonald’s in Chicago when she was 16 and that Kelly later videotaped himself having sex with her; as well as that of Sonja, an aspiring radio broadcaster who said she flew to Chicago for an interview with Kelly at his Chicago studio, where instead she was confined to a room for days, drugged, and sexually assaulted.
“Her big break had turned into her nightmare,” Geddes told the jury.
The New York case is the first of Kelly’s many criminal charges to go to trial. He also faces a case in Chicago’s federal courthouse, where prosecutors allege he and two others fixed his 2008 trial in Cook County.
Kelly was acquitted in that trial, but in 2019 county prosecutors brought four new indictments against him, all of which are still pending at Chicago’s Leighton Criminal Court Building. Kelly also faces a solicitation case in state court in Minnesota.