A federal judge on Thursday handed singer R. Kelly a 20-year prison sentence for his convictions of child pornography and the enticement of minors for sex but said he will serve nearly all of the sentence simultaneously with a 30-year sentence imposed last year on racketeering charges.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber also ordered that Kelly serve one year in prison following his New York sentence.
The central question going into the sentencing in Kelly's hometown of Chicago was whether Leinenweber would order that the 56-year-old serve the sentence simultaneously with or only after he completes the New York term for 2021 racketeering and sex trafficking convictions. The latter would have been tantamount to a life sentence.
Prosecutors had acknowledged that a lengthy term served only after the New York sentence could have erased any chance of Kelly ever getting out of prison alive. It's what they asked for, arguing his crimes against children and lack of remorse justified it.
With Thursday's sentence, though, Kelly will serve no more than 31 years. That means he will be eligible for release at around age 80, providing him some hope of one day leaving prison alive.
Leinenweber said at the outset of the hearing that he did not accept the government's contention that Kelly used fear to woo underage girls for sex.
"The [government's] whole theory of grooming, was sort of the opposite of fear of bodily harm," the judge told the court. "It was the fear of lost love, lost affections [from Kelly]. … It just doesn't seem to me that it rises to the fear of bodily harm."
Prosecutors say Kelly's crimes against children and his lack of remorse justify the stiffer sentence.
A calm Kelly spoke briefly at the start of the hearing, when the judge asked him if he had reviewed key presentencing documents for any inaccuracies.
"Your honor, I have gone over it with my attorney," Kelly said. "I'm just relying on my attorney for that."
Two of Kelly's accusers asked the judge to punish him harshly.
In a statement read aloud in court, a woman who testified under the pseudonym "Jane" said she had lost her early aspirations to become a singer herself and her hopes for fulfilling relationships.
"I have lost my dreams to Robert Kelly," the statement said. "I will never get back what I lost to Robert Kelly. … I have been permanently scarred by Robert."
The woman was a key witness for prosecutors during Kelly's trial; four of his convictions are tied to her.
"When your virginity is taken by a pedophile at 14 … your life is never your own," Jane's statement read.
Another accuser, who used the pseudonym "Nia," attended the hearing and addressed Kelly directly in court. Speaking forcefully as her voice quivered, Nia said Kelly would repeatedly pick at her supposed faults while he abused her.
"Now you are here … because there is something wrong with you," she said. "No longer will you be able to harm children."
Jurors in Chicago convicted Kelly last year on six of 13 counts: three counts of producing child porn and three of enticement of minors for sex.
Kelly rose from poverty in Chicago to become one of the world's biggest R&B stars. Known for his smash hit "I Believe I Can Fly" and for sex-infused songs such as "Bump n' Grind," he sold millions of albums even after allegations about his abuse of girls began circulating publicly in the 1990s.
In presentencing filings, prosecutors described Kelly as "a serial sexual predator" who used his fame and wealth to reel in, sexually abuse and then discard star-struck fans.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Jeannice Appenteng on Thursday urged the judge to set a longer sentence and keep Kelly in prison "for the rest of his life."
Kelly's abuse of children was all the worse, she said, because he "memorialized" his abuse by filming victims, including Jane. She told the court Kelly "used Jane as a sex prop, a thing" for producing pornographic videos.
In prehearing filings, Kelly's lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, accused prosecutors of offering an "embellished narrative" in an attempt to get the judge to join what she called the government's "bloodthirsty campaign to make Kelly a symbol of the #MeToo movement."
Bonjean said Kelly has suffered enough, including financially. She said his worth once approached $1 billion, but that he "is now destitute."
In court Thursday, Bonjean said Kelly will be lucky to survive his 30-year New York sentence alone. To give him a consecutive 25-year sentence on top of that "is overkill, it is symbolic," she said. "Why? Because it is R. Kelly."
She also argued that Kelly's silence should not be viewed as a lack of remorse.
She said that while she advised Kelly not to speak because he continues to appeal his convictions and could face other legal action, "He would like to, he would like to very much."