NEW YORK–R. Kelly, the multiplatinum R&B artist whose musical legacy became intertwined with dozens of accusations of sexual abuse, was found guilty on Monday of serving as the ringleader of a decades-long scheme to recruit women and underage girls for sex.
The jury in New York deliberated for about nine hours before convicting the singer of all nine counts against him, including racketeering and eight violations of an anti-sex trafficking law known as the Mann Act.
The decision represents the first criminal punishment against Mr. Kelly despite a trail of allegations of misconduct that extends for more than a quarter-century. His six-week trial exposed a harrowing system of trauma and abuse, commanded by the singer and enabled by his associates.
Mr. Kelly, 54, once one of the biggest names in popular music, now faces the possibility of life in prison, capping a remarkable reversal of fortune. As the verdict was read, he sat motionless in the courtroom, wearing a navy blue suit and glasses, with his facial expression hidden behind a mask.
To many observers, Mr. Kelly’s case represented a critical test of the inclusivity of the Me Too movement, which seeks to hold influential and powerful men accountable for sexual misbehavior. Never before in a high-profile Me Too-era trial had the large majority of the accusers been Black women.
Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, told reporters that the verdict sent a powerful message to men like Mr. Kelly.
She thanked the 11 men and women who accused him of misconduct at the trial.
“No one deserves what they experienced at his hands or the threats and harassment they faced in telling the truth about what happened to them. We hope that today’s verdict brings some measure of comfort and closure,” Miss Kasulis said.
As he left the courtroom on Monday, one of Mr. Kelly’s lawyers said his defense team would consider an appeal.
“Of course we are disappointed in the verdict,” the lawyer, Deveraux L. Cannick, said as he walked through the courthouse. “I am even more disappointed in the prosecution for bringing this case,” he said, adding that it was “replete with inconsistencies.”
Mr. Kelly once stood atop the realm of R&B music, catapulting himself into an international sensation in the 1990s and 2000s on the success of hits like “I Believe I Can Fly.”
But as the Me Too movement continued to gain steam, cracks in his armor began to show, as new women and their families came forward, a protest campaign was waged to boycott his music and a jarring documentary delved into the accusations around him. The image he once crafted as an alluring sex symbol and genre-redefining lyricist collapsed in the public eye.
The trial marked a significant milestone, as women and men took the stand against the singer to accuse Mr. Kelly of sexual abuse for the first time, including several who had never shared their accounts publicly.
On Monday, several women who said Mr. Kelly had abused them praised his conviction as a decades-in-the-making rebuke of the singer and a meaningful validation of the stories of his victims.
“Today, my voice was heard,” Jerhonda Pace wrote on Instagram. Miss Pace became the first accuser to ever testify against Mr. Kelly at a criminal trial when she took the stand last month.
Oronike Odeleye, the co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign, said the conviction was the result of accusations that took years to be heard.
“This is the culmination of the movement of so many women who have been trying so long to have their voices heard,” Miss Odeleye said. “We have never had full ownership of our bodies. And we’re at a moment where Black women are no longer accepting that as the price of being Black and female in America.”
The verdict came after the government constructed a sweeping case against Mr. Kelly, with evidence that extended from recent years back to the early 1990s.
Federal prosecutors chronicled a dark journey in the career of the singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly. He was embraced as a hometown success story in Chicago as he overcame a low-income upbringing filled with struggles.
But his eminence assured him he was untouchable, prosecutors said, and as he gained immense access to young fans, Mr. Kelly became a criminal mastermind who used a universe of enablers and sycophants in his orbit to ensnare women, girls and boys.
The prosecution called 45 witnesses during the trial, but the criminal charges against the singer hinged on accusations related to six women, five of whom testified (the sixth, the singer Aaliyah, died in a plane crash in 2001).
Four additional women and two men also took the stand as accusers. And though none of their claims were included in the indictment, they helped bolster the government’s arguments, often telling jurors that their encounters with the singer were marred by sexual, physical or emotional abuse from him.
Throughout the proceedings, the result of Mr. Kelly’s only other criminal trial, in 2008, stood in mind for many observers. Prosecutors in Chicago had argued that a videotape showed him having sex with and urinating on an underage girl. But he was acquitted of all 14 counts against him after the girl at the center of the case declined to testify.
The singer’s career flourished afterward with successful record sales and a consistent flow of collaborations with superstars. But in recent years, his musical repertoire was largely expunged from the radio and public spaces, a fate that would likely persist with his conviction.
The government was barred from detailing his previous case. But witnesses depicted an offender who was emboldened by his initial absolution–and whose behavior grew increasingly more brazen and disturbing in the years that followed.
Cheerful fans saluted Mr. Kelly when he was cleared of wrongdoing in his Chicago trial. But only a small band of supporters was gathered outside the Brooklyn courthouse on Monday, where they streamed his music after the verdict was announced.
Mr. Kelly also faces a federal trial in Chicago on child pornography and obstruction charges, and additional state sex crime charges in Illinois and Minneapolis.
Kim Foxx, the top prosecutor in Chicago who announced state sex crime charges against Mr. Kelly in 2019, said the conviction was “monumental” for the Me Too movement and sent a significant message about whose stories mattered.
“It is my hope that through this trial and the toll that it has taken to get to this point, that we recognize that the movement is not at its fullest strength if everyone doesn’t have equal access to justice,” she said.
In New York, the racketeering charge was viewed by some as an unusual and potentially precarious approach. But the statute, which has commonly been used to take down mob organizations, was recently employed successfully against the Nxivm sex cult.
Mr. Kelly’s defense team said that the racketeering charge itself was flawed and unfounded, arguing that he had run nothing more than a successful music business. But the government’s case was expansive.
The charge was built around 14 underlying crimes that he was accused of committing as part of his criminal enterprise; only two of them needed to be proven to convict.
Mr. Kelly declined to testify in his own defense. But his lawyers aimed to cast his accusers as opportunists, liars and obsessive fans, arguing their sex with the singer had been consensual, and their accounts of abuse and misconduct fabricated. They evoked images of him as an altruistic romantic partner who regarded the women around him as family, treated them “like gold” and was blindsided by their allegations.
And they warned that the accounts of his accusers had been too inconsistent over time to believe.
“Getting a conviction of R. Kelly is a big deal,” Mr. Cannick said in his summation, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to argue that if the jurors acquitted Mr. Kelly, they would be demonstrating the sort of courage that defined the civil rights movement. “What’s a bigger deal is a system we can trust.”
But federal prosectors argued that a conviction would demonstrate that even the biggest stars were not untouchable by the law.
“The defendant’s victims aren’t groupies or gold diggers. They’re human beings,” Nadia Shihata, an assistant U.S. attorney, said at the end of the trial. “Daughters, sisters, some are now mothers. And their lives matter.”
The seven men and five women of the jury, whose ages and races were unclear throughout the trial, ultimately sided with their position. The group remained anonymous to the public and to lawyers at both tables in the courtroom.
It featured an enormous pile of evidence, including text messages that showed the real-time worries that some of Mr. Kelly’s employees shared about his treatment of women and several video and audio recordings, some of which appeared to depict the singer violently assaulting a woman and threatening her life.
Still, the focal point of the case was its slate of witnesses, who told jurors the singer’s public persona served to disguise his true intentions.
Among them were friends and family members of the singer’s accusers; eight of his former employees; the minister who presided over his union to Aaliyah; a doctor who treated him for herpes over more than a decade; and a host of investigators involved in his initial arrest in Chicago.
The trial itself represented a peculiar spectacle of the current moment.
It was first scheduled for May 2020. But the pandemic delayed the start date for 15 months. And members of the public and the media were not granted access to the primary courtroom out of safety concerns; they were required to watch the proceedings through closed-circuit video in overflow rooms.
Decades before the trial began, Mr. Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah in 1994, when she was 15 and he was 27, was among the first revelations to bring substantial public scrutiny to his encounters with underage girls. The racketeering case allowed prosecutors the flexibility to introduce decades-old evidence, including details related to Aaliyah, an R&B prodigy whose full name was Aaliyah Dana Haughton.
One of Mr. Kelly’s former tour managers confirmed a long-rumored tale that he bribed a government employee to get a fake identification for Aaliyah so the wedding could go forward, because Mr. Kelly feared that she was pregnant and that he could be prosecuted for statutory rape.
Another woman, Stephanie, told jurors that the singer began sexually abusing her when she was 17, after he told her that he liked “young girls” and that he did not understand why society viewed that as a problem.
And a cascade of witnesses described a repressive system of restrictions that the women and girls around Mr. Kelly were forced to abide by–from a directive to address him as “Daddy” to requirements to obtain his permission to eat or use the bathroom.
They said that when the rules were broken, the singer doled out harsh and startling punishments, from skin-tearing spankings to forcing one woman to smear feces on her face and eat it.
Mr. Cannick, the lawyer for Mr. Kelly, argued that the accounts were works of fiction and argued to jurors that the verdict carried deep implications for broader ideals of justice and fairness.
But Elizabeth Geddes, an assistant U.S. attorney, told the panel that their decision would serve to hold the fallen superstar accountable for the decades of pain and torment he inflicted.
“For many years, what happened in the defendant’s world stayed in the defendant’s world,” Miss Geddes said in her closing argument. “But no longer.”