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Breaking down the racketeering charge facing R. Kelly

After six weeks of harrowing testimony in R. Kelly’s New York sex crimes trial, the jury is considering a raft of evidence intended to support a racketeering charge — a unusual application of a law commonly viewed as a tool to nab mob bosses.

For a racketeering conviction of R. Kelly, shown here in June 2019, prosecutors must prove to the jury he committed at least two out of 14 "predicate acts" -- the crimes elemental to the wider pattern of illegal wrongdoing
For a racketeering conviction of R. Kelly, shown here in June 2019, prosecutors must prove to the jury he committed at least two out of 14 “predicate acts” — the crimes elemental to the wider pattern of illegal wrongdoing

The prosecution says the 54-year-old singer led a criminal ring that enabled his alleged abuse of women and teens for decades. He also stands accused of eight violations of the Mann Act, an anti-sex trafficking law.

The US federal racketeering statute — known by its acronym RICO — went into effect in 1970 and targeted the mafia. It has also been wielded against motorcycle gangs and corrupt police departments.

G. Robert Blakey, now a professor emeritus at Notre Dame Law School who helped draft the RICO statute, said the law wasn’t designed exclusively for mob cases, but rather that the mafia offered a “case study of the issue.”

“There are uses of it that I had not foreseen,” he said, referencing both street gangs and sex crime rings.

Some analysts have dubbed the Kelly case an inventive use of RICO, with government attorneys aiming to take the singer down by projecting a longview of criminal activity rather than prosecuting isolated sex crimes.

For a racketeering conviction, prosecutors must prove to the jury that Kelly committed at least two of 14 “predicate acts” — the crimes elemental to the wider pattern of illegal wrongdoing.

On the list of alleged acts are bribery, child pornography, kidnapping, forced labor and sexual exploitation of a child.

If found guilty on all counts, Kelly faces at least 10 years and up to life in prison.

– ‘Godfather’ –

Sex crime cases present challenges similar to those seen in mob cases, Blakey said, particularly in terms of statutes of limitations — obstacles RICO is designed to help overcome.

Experts say RICO has the benefit of flexibility to present evidence that would otherwise be too old to charge.

“RICO is one of the best ways to extend” statutes of limitations, said Moe Fodeman, a trial lawyer and former federal prosecutor in New York, because though the statute has a five-year limitation, “it runs from the last act the defendant did in furtherance of the enterprise.”

The New York trial against Kelly — he still faces prosecution in three other jurisdictions, including in a Chicago federal court — heard and saw evidence spanning nearly three decades, from 1994 to 2018.

RICO also allows prosecutors to go after criminal “bosses” as long as they oversaw or were linked to wrongdoing — even if they didn’t commit the act themselves.

“RICO is intended to get to the ‘godfather’ of the situation who never gets his hands bloody,” said Jeff Grell, a RICO law expert at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Kelly’s former manager, for example, admitted to bribing a worker at a public aid office to obtain false identification for the late singer Aaliyah, so she could marry the singer when she was 15.

When tried under the racketeering statute, Kelly is also liable for that alleged crime.

– ‘Enablers’ –

Over more than six hours of closing arguments assistant US attorney Elizabeth Geddes meticulously detailed each possible predicate act to the jury, connecting dots from Kelly’s alleged crimes to his “enablers.”

Creating that web is key to a racketeering conviction, because, as Fodeman explained, the jury must be convinced of “the existence of an enterprise.”

“If you’re talking about the mafia, that’s easy,” the attorney said.

But Kelly’s business and entourage, comprised of a ragtag cast of characters with fluid roles, is a less obvious operation.

In the defense’s closing arguments, attorney Deveraux Cannick urged doubt over whether Kelly’s music business could have been doubling as a criminal outfit for decades.

They were “people who went to work every day doing their jobs, just like Robert was,” Cannick told the jury.

But according to Geddes, the testimony spoke for itself.

Standing before a board affixed with images of Kelly’s orbit members encircling his mugshot, Geddes detailed how associates either actively assisted or “turned a blind eye” and “stood watch” — and if victims began to speak out, “he used his henchmen to lodge threats and exact revenge.”

“Without the defendant at the center, there is no enterprise, there’s no R. Kelly music, there’s no R. Kelly brand,” Geddes said.

“This is a Robert Kelly-centric universe and an inner circle; they revolved around him.” AFP