R. Kelly trial: Singer's marriage to Aaliyah under new scrutiny as he's labeled a 'predator'

Opening arguments in R. Kelly's long-delayed sex-trafficking trial got underway in New York on Wednesday as the singer faces his most serious charges yet.

The 54-year-old R&B crooner, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, is accused of running a criminal enterprise, using his fame to lure young women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity. Six women are key to the federal government's case, including the late singer Aaliyah, whose marriage to Kelly in 1994 helped put his alleged predatory behavior in the spotlight.

During Wednesday's proceedings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez claimed Kelly, then 27, married his 15-year-old protégé after learning she was pregnant.

"This was, of course, a huge problem for him," Melendez said in court, per the New York Times. "If she was pregnant that meant there would be questions: At the very top of that list of questions — who is the father of that baby?"

The prosecution alleged Kelly and his associates hatched a plan for the singers to wed to keep him out of jail. Kelly supposedly bribed a government employee in Illinois with $500 to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah, and then married her in a hotel suite before going back on tour. Their marriage was annulled less than a year later. The "Try Again" singer, who was allegedly groomed by Kelly beginning at age 12, was killed in a plane crash in 2001.

Aaliyah in June 2001 at the 2001 MTV Movie awards in Los Angeles.
Aaliyah in June 2001 at the 2001 MTV Movie awards in Los Angeles. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Kelly's defense attorney, Nicole Blank Becker, cast doubt on the story during her opening statement and said there's no evidence Aaliyah was pregnant, according to Insider.

"Aaliyah, God rest her soul, passed away," Becker said, adding, "If Mr. Kelly was involved in a crime in 1994 would we be here today?"

Not all of the charges against Kelly — which include racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, kidnapping and forced labor — hinge on his marriage to Aaliyah. Kelly's relationship with five other women, who were between ages 16 and 22 during the alleged crimes, will also be scrutinized. Four of those women are expected to testify. Two appeared in the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly.

"This case is about a predator," Melendez told the jury, calling Kelly a manipulator who "used his fame, his popularity and a network of people at his disposal to target, groom and exploit young girls, boys and women for his own sexual gratification."

Becker cast doubt on the women's credibility, telling the jury they will hear "half-truths" and "exaggerated testimony" from people who have an agenda, per NBC News.

"They were fans. They came to Mr. Kelly," she declared. "They will paint him as a monster, but you will hear some of these relationships were beautiful and long term. ... They knew exactly what they were getting into and it was no secret that Mr. Kelly had multiple girlfriends."

Kelly has been jailed since 2019 as his trial has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. He faces decades behind bars if convicted on all charges. The singer, who is also facing sex crime charges in Illinois and Minnesota, reportedly looked somber in court. The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.