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R. Kelly sexually assaulted minors and paid witnesses to cover up evidence, prosecutors say as his trial begins

Opening statements came Wednesday in the R&B singer's federal trial on charges of child pornography and obstruction of justice.
R. Kelly
The singer R. Kelly at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on June 6, 2019.E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune/Pool/Tribune News Service via Getty Images file

CHICAGO — The disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly had sex with minors on numerous occasions, recorded many of the alleged assaults to VHS tapes and then paid people who knew about the recordings to keep quiet when he faced criminal charges of child pornography in 2008, jurors were told Wednesday as his federal trial began.

Prosecutors said during opening statements that Kelly, whose legal name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, had a "dark side" and kept a "hidden world" behind his fame and status.

“Robert Kelly had sex with multiple children. He made videotapes having sex with multiple children,” U.S. Assistant Attorney Jason Julien said in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Kelly's alleged victims were as young as 14, he said, adding that there were “multiple girls, hundreds of times.”

"This trial is not complicated in terms of what the issues are," Julien said.

Kelly, 55, who appeared in court Wednesday wearing a navy suit, a blue shirt and a blue tie, is on trial on charges of child pornography and obstruction of justice.

This trial, in his hometown of Chicago, comes almost two months after he was convicted and handed a 30-year prison sentence in New York City on charges of federal racketeering and sex trafficking.

Kelly is being tried alongside his former business manager, Derrel McDavid, and associate, Milton “June” Brown, who are both accused of conspiring with him to intimidate and bribe witnesses and cover up evidence in a 2008 criminal trial on child pornography charges in Cook County, which involved a video recording of him allegedly sexually abusing a minor.

During the opening statements, Julien said McDavid and Brown were part of Kelly’s “tight inner circle” and helped him cover up his abuse, including going to “extraordinary lengths” to help him retrieve a recording of the singer having sex with a minor after the tape went missing.

The chief charge against Kelly and his associates is that they conspired to rig the 2008 trial. That trial centered on a 26-minute videotape sent anonymously to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002 that allegedly showed Kelly performing sex acts with an underage girl. NBC News has not viewed the videotape. He was acquitted in that case after the girl who purportedly appeared in the tape refused to testify at the trial. Jurors at the time said that made it difficult for them to convict Kelly.

On Wednesday, Julien said the person who appeared in that video with Kelly and who will be referred to as Jane during this trial, will testify.

She was victimized by Kelly when she was 14 years old and the singer was 31, Julien said. He said Kelly recorded himself having sex with Jane using a camcorder in several videos where it was clear he knew her age.

After Kelly and his associates became aware that a videotape went public, he used his fame to push Jane and her family into not testifying or cooperating with law enforcement, Julien said.

Jane, now 37, and her parents will testify in this trial about the alleged sexual abuse, Julien said, as will several other alleged victims.

"Jane is going to testify it’s her on the videos, that it’s Kelly having sex with her. Kelly had sex with Jane hundreds of time, at Kelly’s home, in his recording studio, on his tour bus and in hotels," he told jurors. "Kelly told her they would get in a lot of trouble if anyone found out he was having sex with Jane."

Jurors also will be shown several of the recordings Kelly allegedly made of himself engaging in sexual acts with minors.

"The videos are difficult to watch," Julien said. "But it’s important for you all to watch those videos to understand what happened."

Jennifer Bonjean, Kelly’s attorney, said during her opening statements that despite the singer being depicted as a “monster,” the jury will have to decide whether they believe the accusers and witnesses to be credible.

“It is true that Mr. Kelly is imperfect,” she said and that on “his journey from poverty to stardom, he stumbled along the way.” 

Bonjean said the law does not allow jurors to decide if Kelly is a “bad guy,” but whether he committed the alleged offenses for which he is on trial.

“We try counts, offenses, not people’s character,” she said.

"You’ll have to decide whether you believe these people," Bonjean said. "You’ll have to decide whether they deserve any ounce of credibility."

She also said that for 22 years, Jane “adamantly denied” that it was her in the video allegedly depicting her and Kelly having sex and that her parents had denied it, as well. 

Derrel McDavid’s attorney, Vadim Glozman, said Wednesday afternoon that his client “had every reason to believe” Kelly when he denied the allegations against him.

He said McDavid should not be held criminally liable because Kelly never told them the truth and his client “had no reason to doubt” him.

Referring to the 2008 trial, Glozman said Kelly was found not guilty and that, “no one, based on the information at that time, thought any different.”

Kathleen Leon, an attorney for Milton Brown, described him as "just an assistant, who day-in and day-out fulfilled his duties” and had “no knowledge of any conspiracy” or that “the individual portrayed in the VHS tape was a minor.”

Jurors appeared attentive during opening statements, with two seeming to take vigorous notes.

Following opening statements, jurors heard from the prosecution's first witness, Dr. Darrel Turner, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual abuse and sexual offending. He described methods of "grooming," including isolation and showing favoritism and testified that a "power differential makes the grooming process smoother."

Turner was one of three people to testify Wednesday. The others were Ann Meckelborg, a record keeper for The Recording Academy, the organization that produces the Grammy Awards, who confirmed Kelly's history of nominations, wins and performances at the awards show; and retired Chicago Police Department detective Daniel Everett, who testified that he investigated two complaints against Kelly for allegedly abusing Jane. Everett will return to the stand Thursday.

The courtroom was filled to capacity Wednesday, with several people directed to an overflow room. Those in the courtroom included many who said they were members of Kelly’s family and were there to support him. There were, however, no supporters or protesters outside the courthouse Wednesday morning.

Before the opening statements began, Kelly’s attorney objected to the use of pseudonyms for witnesses, specifically the parents of women who were minors at the time of Kelly's alleged abuse. McDavid's attorney joined the objection, arguing that the use of pseudonyms during cross examination will “confuse witnesses” such as law enforcement and may “complicate” the process. Prosecutors, however, argued that revealing the real names of those individuals would, in turn, reveal the identity of their children.

The judge did not rule on the objection.

Safia Samee Ali reported from Chicago and Daniella Silva from New York.