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R. Kelly gets 30 years on sex trafficking conviction 

Jurors convicted Kelly after six weeks of testimony describing physical and sexual abuse, manipulation, and total control over victims' lives. Attorneys for the former superstar say he also suffered from abuse starting when he was a young child. 

BROOKLYN (CN) — A federal judge sentenced singer R. Kelly to 30 years in prison Tuesday on sex trafficking and racketeering charges. 

The 55-year-old “I Believe I Can Fly” singer was convicted nine months earlier on each of nine counts against him. At a six-week trial in Brooklyn federal court, witness after witness described how Kelly used his entourage to systematically recruit and abuse young women and minors

Former girlfriends of Kelly said he exerted total control over their lives, directing them to have sex with one another and with men — sometimes strangers — and even limiting when they could eat and go to the bathroom. He dictated their wardrobes, allowing them only to wear baggy clothing, and forbade them from speaking to or even looking at other men. In elevators, the women and girls were told to face the wall, victim witnesses testified. 

Disobeying “Robert’s rules” would end in angry outbursts or what Kelly referred to as “chastisements" — spankings that left bruises and broke skin — according to testimony. One victim described getting hit with a cord and a Nike Air Force 1 sneaker. Another witness, Jane, said Kelly punished her by forcing her to have sex with a man she’d never met. Others said they were denied food for days. 

At the center of the government’s case was a witness who could not speak for herself: the singer Aaliyah, who died in a 2001 plane crash. 

Trial evidence and testimony showed that she was just 15 when Kelly, then 27, married her because he believed she was pregnant and because he believed incorrectly that their marriage would shield him with spousal immunity. On their way to the altar, Kelly had his associates pay off a public official to create a fake ID for his bride, whose full name was Aaliyah Haughton.

One of Kelly’s former dancers, who testified under the name Angela, said she witnessed Kelly in a “sexual situation” in 1992 or 1993, when Aaliyah would have been 13 or 14 years old.

Angela herself was forced to have sex with Kelly at age 14 or 15, she testified. 

“He told us that we had to pay our dues,” Angela said. “It was a requirement to be around.” 

Kelly seemed to be untouchable. His single “Bump N’ Grind” topped the Billboard charts for the longest stretch of the year in 1994 and was also the longest-running R&B single at that time.

Nearly a decade later, at the same time a sex tape was circulating that appeared to show Kelly having sex with an underage girl and urinating on her, his “Ignition (Remix)” track spent five weeks in the No. 2 spot. Kelly then faced child pornography charges but was acquitted in 2008. 

R. Kelly arrives for the first day of jury selection in his child pornography trial at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse in Chicago on May 9, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Justice would not come for victims until early 2019 when the Lifetime series “Surviving R. Kelly” stirred backlash against Kelly catalyzed by the #MeToo movement. Kelly was quickly indicted at the state and federal level in Chicago, in addition to his charges in the Eastern District of New York.

Of the victims who testified against Kelly at trial last year, the one known as Jane spent the most time on the stand. She said her her sexual contact with the R&B star started in 2015 when she was 17 years old and Kelly was 48. 

The two met in Orlando, Florida, after a concert in Kelly’s “Black Panties” album tour. An aspiring R&B artist herself, Jane said she skipped her high school extracurricular activities to meet Kelly at the Dolphin Hotel for an audition. On the stand, she recalled her outfit: black kitten heels, a pair of dark blue skinny jeans and a crop top with mesh at the top. 

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She says she told Kelly she was 18, and that he in turn told her he needed to ejaculate before he could hear her sing. When she declined, he asked her to walk back and forth wearing a bra and underwear, and insisted she let him perform oral sex on her. 

Jane ultimately moved in with Kelly and stayed with him for around five years, finishing high school remotely with her parents’ permission. She said Kelly’s dominance was made possible in part by isolating her from her family and turning her against them. 

A victim witness who testified as Stephanie said Kelly forgave himself for having sex with minors because of his talent.

“Even look at Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s a genius and I’m a genius,” Stephanie recalled Kelly saying, referring to the fact that rock and roll musician Lewis had married his third wife when she was 13 years old. “We should be allowed to do whatever we want. Look at what we give to this world.”

Kelly’s attorney said his client’s promiscuity may not be to everyone’s taste, but nothing that happened was illegal. 

“His label marketed him as a sex symbol, a playboy. So he started living that sex symbol, playboy lifestyle,” argued Deveraux Cannick, of the firm Aiello & Cannick. “Where’s the crime in that?”

Much of the trial focused on Kelly’s inner circle — the enterprise upon which prosecutors pinned the racketeering charges — and how assistants, managers, runners and friends all helped the singer recruit and maintain control over his young victims. 

Those close to Kelly would carry slips of paper with the singer’s phone number scrawled or printed and hand them out at concerts, malls and a Chicago McDonald’s at Kelly’s instruction, according to court testimony. 

Text messages between a former employee and her twin, who also worked for Kelly, showed her concern when Jane was kept in the back room of Kelly’s Chicago music studio for more than a day. 

“So he’s had her in there all day? Has she come out to use the bathroom or eat?” Suzette Mayweather wrote. “Why is he holding her there?” 

Mayweather’s compassion led her sometimes to break the rules, she said, including allowing a girlfriend named Dominique to leave the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in which the group frequently traveled for tours so that she could get food. 

For employees like Mayweather, disobedience meant getting fined — Mayweather once had to pay Kelly $500 — and having to write apology letters, which was also a requirement of Kelly’s girlfriends, according to testimony.  

Sketch shows Larry Hood, former security and body guard for R. Kelly, testifying for the defense during the singer's sex trafficking trial on Sept. 20, 2021, in Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

To keep both victims and disgruntled employees quiet, Kelly also ordered those close to him to write blackmail letters in which they would admit to stealing from him or falsely claim that they had been abused by their relatives. Witnesses on the stand last year read aloud from letters in which they “admitted” to stealing money or jewelry from the singer, and said Kelly had dictated every word of them. 

Kelly’s attorneys argued in a sentencing memo that former associates called to the stand did so under pressure by the government. 

“I hope you know I NEVER wanted anything to do with this!! I even paid a lawyer to try to avoid it but I was threatened! It kills me everyday!” a government witness wrote in a recent letter to Kelly, according to the memo. “I hope you know I would never want to do anything to hurt you! My hands were tied and they had me backed in a corner!”

The memo was signed by Kelly's post-trial attorney Jennifer Bonjean, who helped comedian Bill Cosby overturn his sexual assault conviction. Citing sexual abuse and trauma in Kelly's own childhood, the memo says his mother beat him with cords and switches, and even stabbed Kelly in the left arm in one incident. Beginning when Kelly was just 6 or 7 years old, Bonjean wrote, he also suffered sexual abuse by his sister and a family friend that went on for years. 

The memo also describes Kelly as "functionally illiterate," a status that brought bullying as a child and ridicule in adulthood, including when the singer couldn't read the teleprompter while accepting Grammy awards. 

Friends and fans of Kelly made their support known throughout the six-week proceedings. They blasted Kelly’s music in the park outside the courthouse, filled rows of the overflow courtroom and harangued journalists covering the trial, both in person and on social media.  

On Monday, one of those defenders was charged with making threats against the U.S. attorneys prosecuting Kelly’s case. Christopher Dunn posted a YouTube video in which he holds up a photo and points out the Brooklyn courthouse and U.S. Attorney's Office, saying “that’s where they work at, we’re going to storm they office,” according to a criminal complaint. Dunn also posted a video using U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly’s name as a hashtag, and investigators say they found Square cash transfers with descriptions like “30 rounds on the haters … free R Kelly.” 

Dunn joined three other men charged with targeting survivors on Kelly’s behalf. Michael Williams pleaded guilty to setting fire to a rental SUV parked outside a victim’s house, while Richard Arline admitted to attempting to bribe a government cooperator. Donnell Russell, accused of calling in a shooter threat to foil the New York City premiere of “Surviving R. Kelly” and blackmailing a victim using nude photos, faces separate trials this summer in Brooklyn and Manhattan federal courts. 

Kelly himself faces a separate federal trial in Chicago, which will begin in August. Charges are pending in Illinois and Minnesota state courts. 

A supporter of R. Kelly danced, cried and played the singer's 2018 song "I Admit" after his guilty verdict was delivered in Brooklyn federal court on Sept. 27, 2021. She declined to give her name, stating that "my head is not clear." (Nina Pullano/Courthouse News)

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