BROOKLYN, New York — A dirty cop. A rapper who’s never put out an album. An audio engineer who was also a Space Jam fan.
These are just a few of the witnesses R. Kelly’s team of lawyers relied on to speak on his behalf and clear his name in the federal case that could send him to prison for decades. Though they largely denied the graphic and detailed accounts of women who said Kelly had abused them, significant chunks of their testimony crumbled under cross-examination: Some admitted they had a financial interest in Kelly’s acquittal, others seemed to barely know him, and they all contradicted key facts.
For over a month, Kelly has been on trial in federal court in Brooklyn on charges of racketeering and human trafficking. Prosecutors have accused him of exploiting his fame, money, and power in order to systematically sexually abuse numerous victims, many underage, in what they have described as a criminal “enterprise.” In earlier testimony, one woman said Kelly forced her to do humiliation porn and have an abortion. Several described complex rules they said Kelly forced upon them, such as requiring his permission to eat or use the bathroom. Many described forced sex and other physical abuse. Kelly has denied any wrongdoing.
After less than three days, the defense rested its case on Wednesday, with Kelly declining to take the stand.
Prosecutors, in contrast, spent over four weeks laying out their case, bringing more than 40 witnesses to the stand, 11 of whom were Kelly’s alleged victims. The defense called five witnesses, whose testimony can only be characterized by the complex legal term "a hot mess."
A former Chicago police officer who was Kelly’s close friend and security guard denied ever seeing Kelly with underage girls, then contradicted that claim almost immediately. Several exaggerated the amount of time they spent with Kelly, eventually having to admit they had far less firsthand knowledge than they had professed. A wannabe rapper and audio engineer acknowledged that, considering how closely their names and careers have been publicly tied to Kelly, it’d be in their best interest for him to be found not guilty.
The five witnesses were all men who were former employees or associates of Kelly. Unlike the alleged victims called by the prosecution, none of the defense witnesses could describe what it was like to have a sexual relationship with the defendant. Despite rumors that one of Kelly’s longtime girlfriends, Joycelyn Savage, might take the stand for the defense — she’s repeatedly and publicly spoken in support of Kelly — she was ultimately not called as a witness.
Kelly’s defense kicked things off on Monday with Dhanai “Da-Ni” Ramanan, a failed aspiring rapper who spent 15 years in the singer’s entourage despite having no paid role and no other job. Ramanan, who has never put out an album, described Kelly as a mentor and spoke passionately about the singer’s artistry.
Ramanan denied ever seeing Kelly hit his girlfriends, lock them in a room, or prevent them from using the bathroom or eating. At restaurants, he said, the women would order and eat first. “I mean, chivalry, basically,” he explained.
Despite saying he spent “every day” with the singer for 15 years, Ramanan’s testimony revealed him to be less a part of Kelly’s inner circle than he claimed to be. Photos of Kelly and his entourage on tour, which prosecutors showed as evidence, did not include Ramanan. He could not recall which of the “many” tours he accompanied Kelly on, later saying he was there for “a few” of them. Of the employees and associates of Kelly whose names have come up repeatedly in the trial, Ramanan’s had not been mentioned once prior to his testimony.
“I was there pretty much the whole time,” he said, “But, ya know.”
Also testifying on Monday was Larry Hood, a childhood friend of Kelly’s who worked as his bodyguard while simultaneously serving as a Chicago police officer. Hood testified that he’d never seen Kelly with underage girls — unless you count Aaliyah, who Hood admitted was around quite a lot starting when she was 12 or 13. He also said he would see Aaliyah’s “little friends,” one of whom previously testified that Hood was present the first time Kelly sexually abused her when she was 14 or 15.
Hood started working security for Kelly in 1991 and became a Chicago Police Department officer in 1994. He worked with Kelly into the mid-1990s, and again from 2002 to 2004, while still serving as a police officer. At times, some of Hood’s fellow officers would join him in working security, despite the fact that Kelly was already facing legal battles over his alleged sexual misconduct with minors.
Though Hood claimed he left the police force in 2007 in “good standing,” he left out a crucial detail until the prosecution brought it up: He actually left after pleading guilty to felony forgery for the use of counterfeit $100 bills.
On Tuesday, Jeff Meeks, an audio engineer who worked for Kelly until 2019 — the year the singer was arrested — testified, but at times acknowledged he did not know what was happening with Kelly and the alleged victims. When asked if the women who’d stay in the studio were permitted to eat, Meeks could not say for certain. “I don’t wanna assume, but I have to assume [they ate],” he said. “I guess I don’t know...I’m sure everybody was eating.”
Meeks denied the women were held in the studio rooms against their will, as several of the alleged victims described earlier in the trial. But as prosecutors revealed during cross-examination, Meeks had in an interview previously told them about an incident in which one woman wanted to leave. But letting her go as she wished was apparently not Meeks’ immediate course of action — instead, he said he asked another employee, “What do we do?” When the woman was permitted to go, Meeks had said he felt “relieved.”
The engineer first worked for Kelly from 2002 to 2010, then again from 2014 to 2019. Prosecutors asked how Meeks could then vouch for Kelly’s conduct before 2002, and he replied he only “knew of him.”
“I think everyone did,” he said. “Remember Space Jam?”
Meeks no longer works in the music industry, and nearly every song he’s been credited on is one of Kelly’s — a fact that prosecutors suggested gave Meeks incentive to testify to Kelly’s innocence.
“Fair to say you don’t want to see the defendant convicted?” prosecutors asked Meeks.
“That’s fair,” he replied.
The other defense witnesses included Julius Darrington, a music consultant who worked with Kelly on some of his final projects. He denied Kelly had abused anyone, but then admitted to prosecutors he was never present when Kelly engaged in sexual activity. He also acknowledged that his work with Kelly was how he established himself in the industry.
John Holder, who served as Kelly’s accountant from January 2018 until shortly before Kelly’s July 2019 arrest, also testified with the aim of disproving the allegation that Kelly ran a criminal “enterprise.”
Yet a document prepared by Holder during his work for Kelly, which the prosecution exhibited as evidence, was titled “RSK Enterprises, LLC” — Kelly’s initials. In the center of the page, there was a large red cartoon octopus, with its tentacles labeled with the names of the defendant’s employees. Across the top, in large letters, Kelly was listed as CEO.
Closing arguments are now underway.