Update: Grammy Award Winning singer R. Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison today for sexually abusing multiple women and underage girls.
The sentence was handed down by US District Judge Ann Donnelly following an emotional confrontation by seven of his victims.
Megan Crepeau and Jason Meisner
NEW YORK — Seven women, some soft-voiced and sobbing, others with blazing anger, stood in a New York courtroom Wednesday to speak about a seemingly endless pattern of trauma and abuse at the hands of R. Kelly.
Through it all, the singer sat silent. He looked down at his hands. He gazed into the gallery. He looked straight ahead. He did not look up at his accusers.
“I want to ask you, Mr. Kelly, to look at me, man to man,” said the father of one of Kelly’s victims, who spoke to the court after his daughter’s remarks. The singer looked away.
The long-awaited hearing in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn that began Wednesday morning took place nine months after Kelly, 55, was convicted by a jury of racketeering conspiracy and eight other counts alleging he used his organization to lure and trap girls, boys and young women to satisfy his predatory desires.
The beleaguered singer entered the courtroom Wednesday morning in a baggy gray-beige jail uniform and thick-rimmed back glasses; his face mask, slightly too big, often slipped under his nose.
Kelly greeted the U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly with a quiet “good morning” then took a seat between his defense attorneys, rested his forearms on the table, and fidgeted with his hands.
In a lengthy address from the bench, Donnelly confirmed that Kelly could face up to life in prison.
The courtroom was packed full of press and spectators. Among the attendees was celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who has represented some of Kelly’s accusers. The front row of one side of the gallery was filled with Kelly’s supporters, one of whom shook her head as Donnelly recapped some of the allegations against him.
In a last-minute revelation, prosecutors said they believe Kelly has access to more money than he has revealed — including selling certain music rights to the tune of $5 million. He has not yet received that money but is entitled to it, assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes said. Kelly lawyer Jennifer Bonjean disputed that characterization, saying Kelly has no regular income and is “pretty close to indigent.”
The hearing is expected to last most of the day and include emotional testimony from some of Kelly’s victims, as well as disturbing new details about Kelly’s own troubled upbringing in Chicago, where he rose from busking at “L” stations to international superstar.
The victim statements began Kelly’s sentence hearing in earnest by late morning. After a lunch break, Kelly’s attorneys are expected to argue for leniency, in part because Kelly himself endured significant abuse as a child.
A woman identified as Jane Doe No. 2 stood to address Kelly directly, saying he assaulted and humiliated her when she was in her teens.
“I literally wished that I would die because of how low you made me feel,” she said.
“Because of you, I have a sexually transmitted disease I will carry around forever,” she said. “While I was in line trying to get medicine for your disease, you were out there destroying girls with no remorse … you took pleasure in humiliating me. You enjoyed seeing me reach new lows at your command. You are shameless, you are disgusting and you are self-serving.”
Lizzette Martinez began to sob when she described her decision to speak out long after her abuse. Kelly had sexually assaulted her when she was 17, and she traveled to Chicago to become his “sex slave,” she said.
“Robert destroyed my young adult life and destroyed my innocence,” she said. “Robert, you destroyed so many people’s lives.”
A woman identified as Addie read her statement from a piece of paper that shook violently as her hands trembled. Addie testified last year that Kelly raped her after a concert in the 1990s, when she was 17.
“I am not here for money and I’m definitely not here for Hollywood,” she said Wednesday. “ … I only have my concert program and my trauma from that event.”
A woman identified as Faith said she had not planned to speak, but changed her mind at the last minute: “I’m closing this chapter in my life,” she said.
“My concern is not that you’re sorry,” she told Kelly. “I can see that you’re not. … I hope that you can get some help and ask god for forgiveness.”
Federal prosecutors have asked Donnelly to sentence Kelly to at least 25 years in prison, saying his racketeering conviction was part of a “long and pervasive history of enticing children to engage in sexual activity.”
“He lured young girls and boys into his orbit, often through empty or conditioned promises of assistance in developing a career in the entertainment industry or simply by playing into the minors’ understandable desire to meet and spend time with a popular celebrity,” prosecutors wrote.
Bonjean, has asked for the mandatory minimum 10-year prison term. A redacted version of her sentencing memo filed on the court docket Tuesday delved deeply into Kelly’s own traumatic childhood in Chicago, including being shot in the arm at age 14 while riding his bike, witnessing frequent domestic violence, and being repeatedly sexually abused by a sister and family friend.
In a lengthy and methodical takedown just before the sentencing hearing began Wednesday, Donnelly denied Kelly’s motion for an acquittal or new trial. Such requests are routinely made but rarely granted.
Donnelly’s 103-page ruling flatly rejected defense arguments that the racketeering charge — which had its genesis in fighting organized crime — should not have applied to Kelly. And in stern language perhaps foreshadowing a lengthy sentence, Donnelly said the evidence clearly showed Kelly wreaked sexual, physical and emotional havoc on his victims for decades.
“For nearly 25 years, the defendant used his fame and his enterprise to lure young victims—girls, boys, young women and men—into abusive sexual relationships, often promising to advance their musical careers,” she wrote. “The defendant exerted control over his victims by limiting their access to family and friends, requiring them to engage in degrading sexual acts with him and with multiple partners while he recorded them, forcing them to write and record false and degrading things about themselves or their families for the defendant to use as ‘insurance,’ among other things.”
The scene outside the courthouse Wednesday morning was relatively subdued. The boom boxes that blasted Kelly’s hits and the “Free R Kelly” chalk drawings that decorated the sidewalk last year were absent this time around.
But there were a few dedicated Kelly supporters in attendance — most of them women. They referred to Kelly as “Robert,” and said they were hoping for leniency.
Among them was Sylvia Tumusiime, who runs a popular YouTube channel under the moniker Infamous Sylvia. Her videos feature prayers for Kelly, and staged readings of transcripts from last year’s trial.
She brought a bright pink Bible with her, and said she planned to read Psalm 37 while she was in the courtroom: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers,” she quoted. “ … They shall soon be cut down like the grass.”
“God’s will will be done, and truth will prevail,” she told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “I know God will work it out, and Robert will be out.”
In the defense filing on sentencing, among the letters written on Kelly’s behalf was one by his now-fiancee, Joycelyn Savage, who says her relationship with Kelly is “amazing” and that it breaks her heart “that the government has created the narrative that I’m a victim.”
Savage was one of two women living with Kelly at the Trump Tower when he was arrested on the federal charges in July 2019. The other wound up testifying against him at the trial under a pseudonym, accusing him of violent abuse and coercion.
Both women featured prominently in Lifetime’s bombshell docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” in which their parents accused Kelly of manipulating their daughters and holding them hostage.
“He’s very determined and focused on his goals, and the things that have been said about him, with me and other women being held against our will is absolutely untrue,” Savage wrote. “It’s the complete opposite of who he is and what my relationship is like with Robert.”
Bonjean’s filing also revealed that one of the victims from his trial wrote Kelly an “unsolicited letter” in April apologizing for her testimony and saying she was “threatened.”
“My hands were tied and they had me backed in a corner!” the person, whom Bonjean did not identify, allegedly wrote.
Bonjean, who intends to challenge the conviction on appeal, told the Tribune the judge’s role is to fashion a sentence “based on not just retribution, but based on rehabilitation and reasonableness.”
“This mob-justice mentality is not the way to go,” she said. “It’s not good for society and it doesn’t take into account the human being. … No matter how angry people are, R. Kelly is a human being.”
Before Donnelly issues the sentence, Kelly will be given the opportunity to address the court — a process that carries added intrigue since his attorney has pledged to appeal the conviction and Kelly faces another trial in Chicago’s federal court in August alleging further sexual misconduct.
Kelly, who declined to testify in his own defense at trial, could choose to remain silent. But if he does decide to say something, he’ll likely have to walk a fine line, trying to persuade the judge to be lenient without admitting guilt.
Regardless, the singer’s response to much of the evidence against him was revealed Tuesday, when reports from doctors who evaluated him were made public.
Kelly largely denied wrongdoing to them, saying he never had sex with teen superstar Aaliyah Haughton, whom he married in the 1990s when she was 15. And contrary to some of the testimony against him, Kelly said he never made anyone write false confessions to be used as blackmail, made people get permission to eat or use the bathroom at the studio.
Even the allegation that he forced his girlfriends to wear baggy clothes was merely his suggestion, so that other men wouldn’t bother them, he said.
In response, prosecutors wrote in a court filing that Kelly’s denials and minimizations only show that he still accepts no responsibility, “and that he is unlikely to be deterred from committing future crimes.”
Many of Kelly’s assertions were “wholly misleading and sometimes outright false,” prosecutors wrote, noting for example that a trial witness testified about seeing Kelly engage in a sex act with Aaliyah when she was 13 or 14.
And while Kelly’s doctors concluded that he does not fit the criteria for a diagnosis of pedophilia, there is significant evidence that he is in fact sexually interested in children, prosecutors wrote.
Two trial witnesses said he asked them to dress up or role play as young girls, prosecutors noted. And the woman who testified at trial under the pseudonym Jane has told authorities that Kelly directed her to get him pornography featuring boys — a claim that was corroborated when federal authorities recovered videos of young males engaged in sex acts from Kelly’s residence.
Kelly also is facing allegations in Chicago’s federal court that he sexually abused middle school-aged victims.
“The defendant’s deliberately false statements are an additional reason to impose a sentence in excess of 25 years as requested by the government,” prosecutors wrote. “Those statements make clear that the defendant takes no responsibility for his criminal conduct and is willing to lie to receive a more lenient sentence — conduct that further demonstrates the need for specific deterrence and to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant.”
Kelly’s trial in New York took place over nearly two months amid strict COVID-19 protocols and involved some 50 live witnesses. A small band of die-hard Kelly fans made their presence known on many trial days, setting up camp in a park across from the Brooklyn courthouse, where they carried signs, chanted about government overreach and blasted Kelly’s music.
In all, the seven-man, five-woman jury found Kelly guilty of 12 individual criminal acts involving the racketeering scheme, including sex with multiple underage girls as well as a 1994 scheme to bribe an Illinois public aid official to get a phony ID for the 15-year-old singer Aaliyah so the two could get illegally married.
The verdict came nearly 20 years after Kelly was indicted in Cook County, Illinois, in 2002 on child pornography charges alleging he’d videotaped himself having sex with his goddaughter, who at the time was as young as 14. A jury acquitted Kelly of all charges at trial in 2008.
Despite years of allegations, Kelly has maintained a loyal following, particularly on social media where fan groups spend endless hours railing against his alleged victims and calling it all a witch hunt whipped up by the 2019 docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly.”
Earlier this week, one of those avid fans, Christopher Gunn, was arrested in the Chicago area on federal charges alleging he threatened to “storm” the U.S. attorney’s office in New York in a video posted to YouTube about a week after the verdict.
Gunn, 39, of Bolingbrook, was charged in a criminal complaint unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn with making threats involving serious bodily injury or death.
Gunn, who has been identified in previous local news reports as a member of an R. Kelly fan club, allegedly told his viewers to “get real familiar with this building” because “If Kellz goes down, everybody’s going down.”
“That’s where they work at,” Gunn allegedly said in the video. “We’re going to storm they office. … If you ain’t got the stomach for the (expletive) we ‘bout to do, I’m asking that you just bail out.”
Gunn also named three prosecutors who were on the case, repeating that he and other unnamed individuals were “going to storm” them as well, the charges alleged.
Days before his arrest, Gunn had been calling for Kelly fans to gather at Kelly’s sentencing hearing in Brooklyn on Wednesday. “I have a spot for us allllll to link during the trial, see you there,” he said, according to the charges.
Instead, Gunn remains in custody pending a detention hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon, while Kelly’s sentencing will be underway about 800 miles away.
Meanwhile, Kelly, who will turn 56 in January, is facing the prospect of potentially spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Under federal rules, defendants must serve 85% of their sentence, so if the judge sentences him to close to what prosecutors have asked for, Kelly would not taste freedom until he’s well into his 70s.
But with credit for time served, a 10-year sentence would mean he would be released when he’s in his early 60s.
Regardless of what his sentence winds up being, the legal woes for the Grammy-winning singer, whose hits include 1996′s “I Believe I Can Fly,” will not be over.
Kelly also faces a pending trial in Chicago’s federal courthouse, where prosecutors allege he and two others fixed his 2008 trial in Cook County and paid people to buy back incriminating sex tapes. He’s also charged in four separate indictments alleging sexual abuse that are still pending at Chicago’s Leighton Criminal Court Building. Kelly also faces a solicitation case in state court in Minnesota.
While there has been no indication in court that plea negotiations on the other cases are in progress, a last-minute deal that would avert further trials is always a possibility. The odds of that outcome would only increase if Kelly receives a long sentence Wednesday.
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