Why did the R. Kelly abuse verdict take so long?

After three decades of accusations against him, R. Kelly has been found guilty of using his status as an R&B star to sexually abuse women and children.

A jury in New York yesterday convicted the I Believe I Can Fly singer – real name Robert Sylvester Kelly – of eight counts of sex trafficking and one of racketeering, “a term usually associated with organised crime”, noted the BBC.

He “could spend the rest of his life behind bars” after being sentenced next May, the broadcaster said.  And he is facing separate charges of child pornography and obstruction in his native city of Chicago, and sex abuse charges brought in Illinois and Minnesota, to which he has pleaded not guilty. 

Years of allegations

During Kelly’s six-week trial at Brooklyn’s Federal District Court, prosecutors presented more than 40 witnesses, including 11 people who described sexual humiliation and violence that they suffered at the star’s hands. 

Accuser Jerhonda Pace told the jurors that he had “invited her to his mansion and ordered her to take off her clothes when she was a 16-year-old virgin, and a member of his fan club, in 2010”, reported Sky News.

The court also heard from former members of Kelly’s staff including tour manager Demetrius Smith, who “was forced to testify against his will after being given immunity from future charges”, said the broadcaster. Smith told how Kelly had bribed a government official to get a fake ID card in order to marry fellow singer Aaliyah in 1994. 

Aaliyah – who died in a plane crash in 2001 – was just 15 when she wed Kelly, then 27, in a secret ceremony following the release of her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, which he produced.

The jury found Kelly guilty on all charges after two days of deliberation. Following the verdict, a witness identified only as Sonja – who had testified that Kelly imprisoned, drugged and raped her – released a statement saying that she “could now start the healing process”.

But many commentators are asking why Kelly’s victims had to wait so long to get justice.

Wait to be heard

“For decades, these black women kept asking when they would be heard, when their voices would matter,”  wrote the BBC’s New York correspondent Nada Tawfit. “This conviction is their Me Too victory.”

Many credit the release of a documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, for ensuring that the allegations were finally addressed. The six-part series aired on US channel Lifetime in 2019, drawing an average of 1.9m viewers, and featured testimonies from women who recounted stories of his violence and abuse.

That most of Kelly’s accusers are black women “likely played a role” in why they had previously gone unheard, wrote Troy Closson in The New York Times (NYT). Throughout history, black women have been “far more likely than white women to have their accusations about sexual misconduct distrusted or ignored”, he continued.

This point was echoed by Kenyette Barnes, who in 2017 co-founded the #MuteRKelly campaign, a nationwide, grass-roots movement to end his career and abuse. Kelly was able to continue his behaviour for so long “because these were young black girls from inner-city Chicago”, she told Sky News

Kelly was also protected by his “expansive network of enablers”, added Closson in the NYT, with bodyguards, drivers and other employees all thought to have played a part.

But Assistant US Attorney Elizabeth Geddes told jurors during her closing arguments last week that “just because you have one of your henchmen do your dirty work doesn’t make you any less responsible”. 

Kelly used his vast fortune to help ensure that his accusers stayed quiet – a move described as the “settlement factory”. In the lead-up to a 2008 trial at which he was acquitted on 14 counts of child pornography charges, Kelly paid witnesses to not cooperate with the authorities and physically threatened them, according to Geddes’ team. 

As abuse survivors celebrate this week’s guilty verdict, the BBC’s North America correspondent Peter Bowes told Radio 4’s Today programme that “these accusations have been swirling around” for many years.

“But it isn’t until now that many of those victims – especially the women of colour who made allegations over the years – feel they have finally been taken seriously and believed,” Bowes continued. 

Campaigners hope the result may lead to the conviction of other high-profile abusers. “It isn’t easy to convict celebrities in this country, especially of sex abuse. Think back to Michael Jackson,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahman told The Daily Beast

“A conviction will also empower other victims of sex abuse to come forward,” Rahman added. “They’ll know they are not alone and that prosecutors will pursue their cases aggressively, regardless of the perpetrator’s celebrity status.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James has welcomed the guilty verdict against Kelly too. But “we must do more to protect, defend, and believe our girls before 30 years pass by”, she tweeted.


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