Kelly in 2019.
Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans-Pool/Getty Images
The defense in R. Kelly’s Brooklyn federal-court trial rested on Wednesday afternoon after hours of messy testimony that came in fits and starts over the course of three days. One of Kelly’s defense witnesses stumbled over whether he had previously lied in court — not a great look when trying to convey credibility. Another witness mentioned the movie Space Jam in discussing his familiarity with Kelly. This is the sixth week of the trial.
The witness who choked on an answer about lying in court, Larry Hood, is Kelly’s friend from childhood who provided security for the musician from 1991 to 1995 and again from 2002 to 2004. Hood became a Chicago Police Department officer in August 1994, the same month that Kelly, then 27, illegally wed Aaliyah, then 15. (It’s unclear if he became an officer before or after the wedding date; Hood claimed he didn’t attend these nuptials and found out about it only later.) He said he worked for Kelly when he was off duty and sometimes enlisted his fellow officers to work security “if we needed them.” Hood said he left the police department in 2007 “in good standing” and with his pension.
“Did you ever see Robert Kelly acting inappropriately with Aaliyah?” Calvin Scholar, one of Kelly’s attorneys, asked.
“No, I did not,” Hood replied.
Scholar also asked Hood whether he knew Angela, who claimed last week that Kelly had abused her when she was 14 or 15 years old. She also testified that she witnessed Kelly perform oral sex on Aaliyah on a tour bus when the late singer was 13 or 14.
“Yeah, she was just one of the young ladies who was around when Aaliyah was … one of Aaliyah’s little friends,” Hood answered. Did he see anything inappropriate with Angela? “No, sir,” Hood said.
“Did you ever see him with underage women?” Scholar asked. “Did you ever see Kelly lock a woman in a room?” Hood again answered in the negative.
“As a police officer, I would have to take action against that,” Hood said of any alleged wrongdoing. “I never had to take any action. I was never made aware of wrongdoing.”
Prosecutors’ next line of questioning didn’t bode well for Hood’s believability.
“Isn’t it true you left the police department in 2007 because you were convicted of felony forgery?” the prosecution asked. Hood admitted that he had pleaded guilty to forgery charges.
The prosecutor asked if the forgery was “related to the use of counterfeit $100 bills.” Hood said yes, but added that he was “not aware the money was fake.”
“So you weren’t telling the truth when you were in court, under oath, when you were pleading guilty?”
“You’re in court, under oath, here today?”
“Yes,” he said.
Before Hood’s testimony, Kelly’s longtime associate Dhanai Ramanan took the stand in the singer’s defense. “He’s like a mentor to me, a friend, a good friend,” Ramanan said. He claimed to have met Kelly in the early aughts and was constantly around him for 15 years, including on tours. Ramanan — who said his job with Kelly was “to observe and to learn and to become” — described the artist as polite toward women.
The defense asked, “During that entire time, did you ever see him abuse a woman? Did you ever see him lock a woman in a room? Did you ever see him strike a woman? Did you ever see him deny a woman food?” Ramanan answered no.
“Whenever we’d go to a restaurant, they’d sit down first, they’d order first, they’d eat first — I mean, chivalry, basically,” he said.
While Ramanan said he was always around Kelly, the prosecution revealed an inconsistency in that testimony when, during its line of questioning, he couldn’t remember some chronology surrounding tours, thereby undermining his claim of constantly being in the singer’s presence.
The defense’s third witness, Jeff Meeks, worked for Kelly at his studios from 2002 to 2010 and from 2014 through 2019 up until Kelly’s arrest. He started as an intern, working his way up to the role of assistant audio engineer. Scholar asked Meeks questions about whether he had ever seen locks on the outside of studio doors and whether he had ever seen a woman locked inside a room. Meeks responded, “No.” Meeks also said that when he was working the phones, he took IDs. Asked whether he had ever seen an underage female, Meeks again said no. While he didn’t inspect every ID, he said he didn’t recall any underage girls.
During Meeks’s testimony, his demeanor was that of a talk-show guest. He leaned back in his chair and held the mic. On the small video screen, Meeks appeared to have a balding ponytail. He gave short answers when he could and confusing ones when he couldn’t.
On cross-examination, the prosecution asked whether Kelly ever had more than one female guest. “I suppose,” Meeks replied.
“Do you recall telling federal agents that Kelly sometimes had three or four female guests?” prosecutors pressed.
“I mean, I believe you,” he responded. “I just don’t remember.”
Meeks was then questioned about a time when he allegedly “saw a girl ask to leave,” as the prosecutors put it. The prosecution asked whether he had asked a colleague, “What do we do?”
“I do remember that,” he said. The prosecution asked if, after the colleague told Meeks to let the person leave, “You were relieved?”
“I’m sure I was a lot of things, but I guess relieved was one,” he replied.
The prosecution then asked Meeks whether he knew about Kelly’s conduct before they worked together in 2002. Meeks said he had heard of Kelly.
“I mean, everybody did — remember Space Jam?”
In total, the defense called five witnesses. Kelly did not testify.
Kelly faces one racketeering count and eight Mann Act counts. The Mann Act counts relate to Kelly’s alleged shuttling of victims across state lines for illicit sex acts.
Prosecutors have described Kelly as a “predator, a man who for decades used his fame, his popularity, and a network of people at his disposal to target, groom, and exploit girls, boys, and young women for his own sexual gratification.” They contend that this abuse was not just a series of horrendous incidents but rather was carried out as an orchestrated criminal enterprise — hence the racketeering charge.
They used specific allegations of sexual misconduct — from luring minors to psychological torment that kept them under his control — to make their racketeering case. They have contended that Kelly and his clique had a “common purpose of achieving the objectives of the Enterprise” to support his music and personal brand while enticing victims into unlawful sexual activity.
Federal prosecutors called 45 witnesses to make their case. Eleven of these witnesses were Kelly’s accusers; their allegations included sexual abuse and misconduct, with some accusing him of both.
Eight of these witnesses were former employees. Several described how Kelly had used his employees to meet girls and women, shuttle them around, and allegedly keep them in a state of isolation. And several described having misgivings about Kelly’s treatment of his girlfriends and their suspicion of his misconduct.
The prosecution’s final witness, psychologist Dawn Hughes, testified on Friday afternoon and Monday morning to explain that victims of domestic and sexual violence may remain with and return to their abusers — and that going back doesn’t negate victimhood. Hughes’s testimony was meant to address the question of why women would stay with Kelly if he was abusing them
Witnesses preceding Hughes last week reiterated what earlier witnesses had said about Kelly’s dramatic highs and lows, describing him as an awful employer and an angry person. Prior to Hughes’s testimony, one of Kelly’s former assistants, Cheryl Mack, said he had threatened her so she would support him in a lawsuit filed by an accuser, warning, “Generally, in these situations, people come up missing.”
Aliciette Mayweather, another former Kelly assistant, testified last week. Mayweather’s testimony revealed that she had expressed concern about one of his girlfriends, Jane, in a text to another employee. “When she gets to Florida, she should run and never come back,” the message said. “Something is really strange as to the treatment of the little one …” (Mayweather’s twin sister, Suzette, also worked as Kelly’s assistant. During Suzette Mayweather’s testimony several weeks ago, she described Kelly as being “like a brother” but admitted thinking that Jane “looked young” to her.)
Diana Copeland, another former Kelly assistant, also took the stand last week. Copeland’s name came up repeatedly throughout the trial, with witnesses saying she coordinated travel for Kelly’s female guests and kept an eye on them. She testified that Kelly’s girlfriends did not freely roam his homes. Copeland said she was “fined” — that is, her pay was withheld — when she couldn’t find a “really rare puppy” Kelly had demanded.
Another witness last week, Angela, testified that Kelly had abused her when she was 14 or 15 years old and that she saw him sexually abuse Aaliyah on a tour bus when the late singer was 13 or 14. “I saw Robert and Aaliyah in a sexual situation. It appeared that he had his head in between her legs and was giving her oral sex,” Angela testified of the alleged incident, which she said took place in 1992 or 1993.
Alex, the second male accuser to publicly make allegations against Kelly, took the stand as well. Alex claimed to have met Kelly in 2007, when he was 16. A friend of Alex’s at the time, Louis, introduced him to Kelly. (Louis was the first man to come forward publicly with sexual-misconduct allegations against Kelly; he claims this abuse started when he was 17.) Alex, who said he had his first sexual encounter with Kelly at age 20, claimed he had been pressured into unwanted sexual activity.
The prosecution also played recordings on Wednesday, but they were presented only to jurors and parties in the case; neither the media nor the public watching Kelly’s trial in a viewing room could see or hear any of it. A court document filed Tuesday revealed that prosecutors planned on presenting recordings that “show the defendant physically and verbally abusing and threatening females.” But it remains unknown what exactly jurors heard or saw. Kelly didn’t use his headphones while these recordings were presented, which would have allowed him to hear them.
A woman from one of these recordings, called “Jane Doe #20” in court filings, was going to take the stand, but prosecutors changed their mind because of her emotional state. They said that “after the government played the audio recording for Jane Doe #20 and Jane Doe #20 traveled to New York to prepare for her testimony, she started to have panic attacks and appeared to have an emotional breakdown. For the sake of her mental health, the government advised Jane Doe #20 that it would not call her as a witness at the trial.”
The conclusion of the prosecutors’ case did not have the jaw-dropping power of its first few weeks. Because the press is relegated to a viewing room where the proceedings are displayed on two 52-inch TV screens, it’s unclear how jurors reacted to witnesses and evidence that corroborated what many, many other witnesses had already said.
The only things that are really visible on these screens are the profiles of Kelly and two of his lawyers. Everyone else’s head and face are the size of quarters. (Vulture measured.) The only glimpse of jurors occurs when the camera catches them shuffling into the courtroom. Jurors could have seemed riveted, convinced, or bored by this week’s proceedings. The tail end of the prosecutors’ case could have proved pivotal for them, or it could have been damaging. The jurors, who are now about enter their sixth week of testimony, may be exhausted at this point; a juror might have dozed off at some juncture, which happens even in the highest-profile trials. There is no sense of how any of this will land.
Another key unknown factor is how the jury interpreted Copeland’s cross-examination. Kelly’s lead lawyer, Devereaux Cannick, asked Copeland whether the doors at Kelly’s home could lock from the outside — an important question, considering how some accusers said they felt compelled to stay. “No, they did not,” Copeland said. The defense also tried to use Copeland’s cross-examination to undermine claims that Kelly ran a criminal enterprise. Copeland, who quit her job and returned many times, said she did so “because I felt like he did not have trustworthy people around him. Robert did not have control over his bank accounts. He didn’t even know his own social-security number. He had no control over that; he had no idea where his royalties were going. That was a huge problem.”
This post has been updated throughout.