NEW YORK — One by one, a series of women stood in a Brooklyn courtroom Wednesday and spoke of brutal abuse at the hands of R. Kelly.
Some of them were soft-voiced and sobbing, while others blazed with anger. Across the room, Kelly sat silent.
He looked down at his hands. He gazed into the gallery. He stared straight ahead. He did not look at his accusers.
And he remained stoic a few hours later, when U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly delivered a sledgehammer of a sentence: 30 years in prison, which will at least make Kelly a senior citizen before he ever tastes freedom again.
“These victims were disposable to you,” Donnelly told him. “You left in your wake a trail of broken lives. … You taught them that love is enslavement and violence and humiliation.”
The sentence punctuates decades of allegations against Kelly, a Chicago-born superstar whose fame grew even as he was widely accused of sexual abuse. Kelly was convicted last year on sprawling federal racketeering and sex-crimes charges alleging he used his organization to lure and trap girls, boys and young women to satisfy his predatory desires.
From the bench, Donnelly sometimes spoke in a quiet tone that belied her scathing description of Kelly’s behavior as a pattern of brutality including serial rape and sexual abuse.
“Although sex is certainly a weapon you used, this crime is not about sex, it’s about violence and cruelty and control,” she said. “You had a system in place that lured young people in your orbit and took over their lives.”
Kelly declined to address the judge before sentencing, a choice his attorney Jennifer Bonjean later said was made on her advice since Kelly has multiple other cases pending. His trial on charges related to child pornography and obstruction of justice is slated to begin in Chicago’s federal court Aug. 15. He also faces charges of sexual abuse and assault in Cook County, and a solicitation case in Minnesota.
Bonjean told reporters after sentencing she was confident that Kelly would win his appeal, saying prosecutors overreached when they charged him under the RICO Act.
“These were isolated events that happened many years ago, and the government simply tried to plead around the statute of limitations to bring it in a RICO charge, which was inappropriate,” she said. “All I can tell you is there was no enterprise. There was no enterprise. It was one man with allegations by a number of women, which doesn’t make it an enterprise.”
During sentencing, however, Donnelly said she had no doubt Kelly orchestrated a system of violence and control, with the help of many enablers.
In her remarks in court, Bonjean urged the judge to consider that Kelly has had “horrific labels slapped on him” but is still a human being who deserved fairness in court.
Bonjean noted that Kelly is a product of an extraordinarily difficult childhood; he suffered extensive sexual abuse and grew up in a poor household where domestic violence and substance abuse were common, she said.
“These events shape us, they change our brains, they make us who we really are,” she said. While those circumstances do not excuse bad acts, she said, “they do help put a lens on certain behavior and allow the court to see it through that lens that is not so one-dimensional.”
Wednesday morning, nine months after his trial, the beleaguered singer entered the courtroom in a baggy gray-beige jail uniform and thick-rimmed black glasses; his face mask, slightly too big, often slipped under his nose.
Prosecutors were seeking more than 25 years behind bars for Kelly, while his defense argued for the minimum 10 years.
The courtroom was packed full of reporters and spectators. Among the attendees was celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who sat next to the Kelly accusers who spoke in court. 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.
The hearing started in earnest when Kelly’s accusers stood to speak.
A woman identified as Jane Doe No. 2 addressed Kelly directly, describing the way he assaulted and humiliated her when she was in her teens: “Do you remember that?”
“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 visibly shook 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.”
A redacted version of Bonjean’s 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 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.
While Kelly did not address the courtroom Wednesday, his 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. The young star later perished in a plane crash.
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.
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 Aaliyah so the two could get illegally married.
While the trial took place in New York, much of the evidence centered around Chicago, and testimony featured mentions of the old Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s as well as Kelly’s suburban mansion in Olympia Fields.
The verdict came nearly 20 years after Kelly was indicted in Cook County 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.”
The scene outside the courthouse Wednesday morning was subdued, however. 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.
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But after sentencing, the street in front of the courthouse became a chaotic swarm. A thick crowd of reporters gathered for a series of news conferences from Bonjean, Eastern District of New York U.S. Attorney Breon Peace, and two Kelly accusers along with their attorney Allred. As they spoke, bystanders sparred loudly in the background.
As the reporters dispersed, Kelly’s supporters and detractors continued to shout.
“They got him! They got him! They got him in Chicago too!” one woman said.
“They have a manufactured tape,” a Kelly supporter shot back.
“Aaliyah! This is for Aaliyah, baby!” another woman cried, with apparent glee.