NEW YORK — At first, the defense witness who took the stand in the trial of R. Kelly, the R&B superstar who for years has faced accusations of sexual misconduct, said on Monday that he had never seen the singer hanging around underage girls.
But the witness, Larry Hood, a childhood friend of Kelly and a former Chicago police officer, then acknowledged that he had been present when Kelly first met R&B singer Aaliyah, whom Kelly is accused of having sex with when she was 13 or 14.
The defense’s case began Monday following five weeks of testimony that included 11 accusers, six of whom testified that they were underage when their sexual encounters with the singer began.
Prosecutors have sought to prove that the singer’s public image as an alluring lyricist and charismatic performer served to disguise and enable a predator who enforced suffocating rules on the women in his orbit and doled out beatings when those rules were broken.
Women described being raped, imprisoned, drugged and forced to have an abortion by Kelly and the people under him. A male accuser, who said he had been groomed by Kelly since he was 17, testified that he had been “brainwashed” by the singer.
Kelly, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, is charged with one count of racketeering and eight violations of an anti-sex-trafficking law known as the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting individuals across state lines for the purpose of sex. Kelly, who has pleaded not guilty to all the accusations, also faces a federal trial in Chicago on child pornography and obstruction charges, in addition to state charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
In cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses, Kelly’s four-lawyer defense team often sought to cast his accusers as jealous fans who became angry when they fell out of the singer’s favor. But as his defense began Monday, his lawyers offered two witnesses who said they had never seen anything troubling during years of close contact with Kelly.
Hood, who left the police force in good standing in 2007 despite having pleaded guilty to forgery, said he had no reason to believe Kelly behaved inappropriately against women or girls.
“As a police officer, I would have had to take action against that,” Hood said. “I never had to take any action. I was never made aware of any wrongdoing.”
But during cross-examination by the prosecution, Hood described a world in which Kelly surrounded himself with girls — including Aaliyah and a group of “little Aaliyah’s little hype girls.” One of them, a woman identified in court as Angela, told the jury last week that she began having sex with Kelly as a teenager and once saw him perform a sex act on Aaliyah around 1993, making Aaliyah the youngest girl whom Kelly is accused of sexually abusing.
“I wasn’t checking IDs at the studio,” Hood said, and added that only “later in life” did he learn of his friend’s wedding to the 15-year-old Aaliyah in August 1994.
Another defense witness, Dhanai Ramnanan, described himself as an aspiring singer who worked in the studio with Kelly on and off for some 15 years. He described Kelly as “like a mentor to me and a good friend,” and said he had never witnessed Kelly verbally abuse or strike a woman, nor prohibit her from eating or using the restroom — all accusations made during the first five weeks of trial.
“Whenever we’d go to a restaurant, they’d sit down first, they’d order first, they got to eat first,” he said of Kelly’s girlfriends. “I mean, chivalry, basically.”
As the trial nears its end — Judge Ann M. Donnelly said she expects the jury to begin deliberations by the end of the week — Kelly’s lawyers also offered a list of several additional witnesses they might call, including an investigator, an accountant and friend of Jerhonda Pace, Kelly’s first accuser at the trial. Kelly was not on the list.
Testifying in his own defense would represent a potentially perilous strategy for Kelly. After facing new legal scrutiny in 2019, Kelly lost his composure in a widely viewed interview with Gayle King of “CBS This Morning,” jumping out of his chair and pounding his chest on camera.
During their cross-examination of witnesses, Kelly’s defense team has focused on challenging the basis of the racketeering charge itself, arguing that the prosecution’s depiction of a vast illicit organization is misguided, and that the singer ran nothing more than a music business. They have also aimed to persuade jurors that his accusers had consensual sex with him and later fabricated their accounts of abuse and misconduct, homing in on minor changes in aspects of their stories over time and the willingness of some to interact with Kelly for years.
The defense will aim to advance that portrayal, presenting Kelly as a generous romantic partner who treated the women around him like family and was blindsided by their allegations.
The image lies in stark contrast to the one painted during the government’s case, built around the accounts of five women: Pace, Stephanie, Faith, Sonja and a woman who testified under a pseudonym. Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash two decades ago, and her brief illegal marriage to Kelly in 1994 also lie at the heart of the government’s case. The accusations would usually be too old to prosecute, but the racketeering charge allows the government more flexibility.
Set against the backdrop of the MeToo movement, the trial is the first time accusers have taken the stand against Kelly, despite a trail of accusations spanning decades. And in a critical moment of the movement, the case is also the first time that a majority of the accusers have been Black women in such a high-profile case.
Dawn M. Hughes, an expert in clinical and forensic psychology who testified last week and Monday as the prosecution’s final witness, aimed to help jurors connect bits and pieces of the witnesses’ accounts with a broader understanding of the long-term impacts of abuse and how it can “jumble together” the memories of accusers — making them act in ways that can later appear disingenuous.
Recalling the biblical story of David and Goliath, Hughes said that speaking out against a celebrity, like Kelly, is made more difficult by his wealth of resources and a protective community insulating him from criticism. Now, that community is at the center of the case against Kelly.