In 2008, a Chicago jury acquitted R. Kelly on child pornography charges in his hometown. Prosecutors said that a 27-minute tape from between 1998 and 2000, repeatedly bootlegged and sold on streets across the country, showed the R&B star having sex with a teenage girl. But the alleged victim never testified in the trial, and Kelly’s defense team, helmed by the storied Chicago attorney Edward Genson, managed to convince some of the jurors that the people in the tape weren’t who the government claimed. Kelly’s career, then near its creative and commercial peak, had been continuing mostly unobstructed, and after the verdict came in, his supporters celebrated outside the courthouse, where they had been gathering throughout the trial.
Allegations of Kelly’s sexual misconduct date back at least 26 years, but it’s only in the last few that a cultural and legal response has more clearly coalesced. In 2019, the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly provided a widely dissected coda to the #MuteRKelly campaign on social media and a BuzzFeed investigation that sparked fresh inquiries into the singer’s behavior. That same year, Genson, who would die a year later, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Kelly had been “guilty as hell,” and Page Six reported that a Homeland Security Investigations agent watching Surviving R. Kelly initiated an investigation that led to his arrest. Federal authorities ultimately brought two sets of charges against Kelly. In a first trial last year, a Brooklyn jury found him guilty on nine counts related to racketeering and sex trafficking. One of the victims who testified about Kelly’s abuse recalled on the witness stand how she first met him outside the courthouse in 2008.
A judge sentenced Kelly to 30 years in prison this summer, but a second federal trial that begins with opening arguments on Wednesday is meant to expand the justice system’s efforts to catch up with the trail of allegations against him. (Kelly has filed a notice to appeal the Brooklyn conviction.) In the Northern District of Illinois, Kelly faces 13 counts including child pornography, coercing a minor into criminal sexual activity, and obstructing the federal investigation connected to his 2008 trial. (Kelly also faces state-level charges related to sex crimes in Illinois and Minnesota. He has maintained his innocence.)
Prosecutors claim that Kelly and his associates paid off and threatened witnesses and their families, including the woman who appeared in the tape and her parents. Now in her 30s, she is expected to testify in this trial, as is her mother. Prosecutors have indicated that the two women will testify about the coercive and financial lengths that Kelly and his employees went to keep them from cooperating with the government.
While prosecutors in Kelly’s trial in the Eastern District of New York last year portrayed him as the leader of a criminal enterprise, none of his employees were tried alongside him. It was a dynamic that Kelly’s defense waved at, albeit briefly, and one that Judge Ann Marie Donnelly pondered as she delivered his sentence in June: “Maybe it just became normal to these people.” In Illinois, Kelly has two codefendants. Prosecutors claim that he and his former business manager Derrel McDavid orchestrated the scheme to keep victims and witnesses quiet, and that both of them, along with another employee, Milton Brown, staged an effort to recover some of the sex tapes that Kelly recorded—some of them allegedly involving minors—in order to keep them from authorities. (McDavid and Brown have pleaded not guilty.)
For all the renewed attention paid to Kelly’s history over the last few years, his trial in Brooklyn was a relatively quiet proceeding—his reputation had in some ways already been sealed. The lead-up to this second trial has resulted in fewer revelations about Kelly’s ring of abuse than stories of a wide range of complicating behavior and claims. A Chicago man named Christopher Gunn, ostensibly a Kelly supporter, recently pleaded not guilty to charges of threatening the Brooklyn case’s prosecutors in a YouTube video. Tabloids have reported on Kelly forming friendships in a Brooklyn federal prison with Frank James, the alleged Sunset Park subway shooter, and Brendan Hunt, who, following the January 6 insurrection, made death threats against members of Congress. Joycelyn Savage, a former live-in girlfriend of Kelly’s, reportedly claimed last week that she is pregnant with Kelly’s child.
Kelly’s new attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, denied Savage’s claim, writing on Twitter, “People are just insane.” Bonjean, who has also represented Bill Cosby and Larry Hoover, stepped in for the frequently scattered defense team that represented Kelly in Brooklyn. She has since launched something of a public advocacy campaign, and wrote on Twitter last week that it would be hard to find an impartial jury “given the media war on my client.” Bonjean has told the Sun-Times that Kelly’s new trial is “total and complete overkill” that stems from a government fixation she believes to be “motivated, in part, by race.” (Most of Kelly’s known victims and alleged victims are also Black.)
At Kelly’s sentencing in June, he declined to address his victims in the courtroom or the judge. (Bonjean cited his other pending cases.) As entrenched as his history of abuse has become in the public consciousness, he has never gone so far as to address it head-on, and he maintains some level of residual fan support. Over the next month—the judge has said he wants the proceedings to last a maximum of four weeks—Kelly will face another round of criminal reckoning, this time in his hometown, nearly 15 years after his acquittal there earned him a courthouse celebration.
The post What’s at Stake in R. Kelly’s Second Federal Trial appeared first on Vanity Fair.