Just a few hours after federal prosecutors in opening arguments referred to R Kelly as a “predator” who used his fame to target and abuse young women and girls over the span of three decades, Nicole Blank Becker came to the R&B singer’s defense.
“The relationships he had with the [accusers] were consenting relationships,” Becker told the jury during her opening statement on the trial’s first day. “These were individuals who knew what they were getting into.”
Pacing in front of the jury wearing a dark pantsuit, her hair pulled back into a low ponytail, Becker said the accusers are women who became “resentful, angry and even spiteful” after their relationships with Kelly ended and have taken “advantage” of their situation for media attention.
As the only woman on Kelly’s four-person defense team, Becker has angled herself as the team’s key defense attorney, arguing for the singer’s innocence.
Kelly’s trial kicked off in Brooklyn earlier this month after being on hold due to pandemic-related health concerns. The singer faces federal charges for racketeering and violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women and girls for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery. Kelly has pleaded not guilty on all charges.
Becker joined Kelly’s defense team in March 2019, a month after Kelly received an indictment from Illinois prosecutors in February 2019. Kelly would be arrested on federal charges and face separate charges in Minnesota later that year.
Once the head of a sex crimes unit at the Macomb county prosecutor’s office outside of Detroit, where she worked as a prosecutor since 2005, Becker opened her own private practice in Michigan and became a defense attorney in 2018 – just a year before she would join Kelly’s defense team.
In the era of #MeToo, Becker has branded herself as a staunch defender of those who have been accused of sexual abuse. “Being wrongfully accused of sexual assault, rape or any type of sex crimes may leave you with a lot of questions,” reads Becker’s website. “You need a lawyer who isn’t afraid to fight on your behalf.”
Becker said previously that she made the 180-degree switch from being prosecutor to a defense attorney for sex crimes because the jobs “use the exact same skills”.
“Anyone who is suspected of committing a crime has a right to have their rights protected,” Becker told the Detroit Free Press in 2019. “That is what I do, no matter what side I am on.”
While Becker has said little publicly about her role on Kelly’s defense team, she said in a 2019 statement that Kelly has been “tried in the media before he gets a trial date”.
“My role is to try to bring Kelly’s side of the story to the public and protect his constitutional right to a fair trial,” she said.
With two weeks of the trial down, the team has made clear that their strategy is to use the age-old defense that while Kelly’s action may have been unseemly, they were not criminal.
The accusers who have taken the stand so far have told similar stories of quickly developing sexual relationships with Kelly at a young age, succumbing to a series of “rules” like calling Kelly “Daddy” and asking him for permission to eat or use the bathroom. The women described physical and verbal abuse when Kelly was upset. He also appeared to have an obsession with videotaping his sexual encounters.
Kelly’s lawyers have claimed the interactions with Kelly were consensual, and the women had a choice to leave a situation or call the police.
The strategy echoes that of the 2020 trial of Harvey Weinstein, whose defense team argued that prosecutors created an “alternative universe” in which “women are not responsible for the parties they attend, the men they flirt with, the choices they make to further their own careers”.
With the #MeToo movement’s revealing how often men use their power to abuse women, it is probably no coincidence that, like Weinstein’s trial, the head lawyer of Kelly’s defense is a woman.
Donna Rotunno, the woman who defended Weinstein in his sex abuse trial, outlined in a 2018 interview what being a woman in the courtroom means for the optics of a sex abuse trial.
“I have the ability to get away with a lot more in a courtroom cross-examining a female than a male lawyer does,” Rotunno told Chicago magazine in 2018. “He may be an excellent lawyer, but if he goes at that woman with the same venom I do, he looks like a bully. If I do it, nobody even bats an eyelash.”
The strategy did not quite work in Weinstein’s trial, with the former movie executive being sentenced to 23 years of prison after a jury found him guilty two counts of sexual assault, but that is not stopping Kelly’s team from trying to convince the trial’s jury that the singer’s accusers were “groupies” who sought out Kelly and consented to forming intimate relationships with him.
“You chose to pick up every time he called,” Becker told on Thursday an accuser, who went by the name “Stephanie” during the trial and said she had a months-long relationship with Kelly in 1999 when she was 17. “You could have chosen to get up and leave … You consented to having sexual relations with him every time.”
“I felt I didn’t have a choice,” Stephanie said.