Abortion, Porn & Slavery: Morality Issues Cloud Jury Selection for Sex-Cult Trial

NXIVM leader Keith Raniere is depicted second from right in this April 2018 courtroom sketch. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Eight men and four women were chosen as jurors Monday for the upcoming trial of cult founder Keith Raniere, a leader of the purported self-help group NXIVM who is accused of running a sex-slavery ring within the secretive organization.

The jurors, sworn in around 11 a.m. Monday, all hail from New York’s Eastern District, which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island. Six alternate jurors, three men and three women, were also empaneled after both sides exercised their final strikes this morning.

Tuesday will mark the start of the approximately six-week trial, in which jurors will be anonymous and partially sequestered, transported to and from the courthouse by U.S. marshals. 

Raniere, 58, faces charges including forced labor, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, wire fraud and violations of federal anti-racketeering law. Many of those charges revolve around a secretive group DOS that prosecutors say operated within NXIVM (pronounced Nexium).  

At least two of the 12 jurors said during questioning that they knew someone who had been sexually assaulted. A white woman in her 50s said she had multiple female friends who were raped, while a black man who appeared to be in his 30s told the judge a friend of a friend was raped at about age 12.

Of the 100-plus jurors questioned over three days of voir dire last month, at least 15 were themselves sexually assaulted or abused or knew someone who had been.

The juror questionnaires and much of the voir-dire process read like a “Who’s Who” list of controversial U.S. topics. Potential jurors were asked to rank the importance of their faith and to share their thoughts on polyamory, abortion, sexually explicit images, illegal immigration, tax-dodgers, body modification and child molestation.

This still from a video in the YouTube series “Keith Raniere Conversations” shows the NXIVM leader who will begin trial May 7 on sex-trafficking and other charges.

One of the most commonly and hotly discussed issues during voir dire was abortion, which is legal in the U.S. under federal law and plays a small role in Raniere’s case. Defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo revealed that his client used abortions seemingly in lieu of birth control.

“There are a lot of abortions in this case. Dozens,” Agnifilo said last month. “As part and parcel of his desire to have sex with lots of women, he used abortions cavalierly.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza quickly developed a mantra in response: “This is not a case about abortion.”

At one point, she said, “It can’t be that everyone who is pro-life can’t serve on this jury. That’s not what this case is about.”

But several potential jurors bowed out at the mere mention of abortion, saying they could not get past the issue and would be forced to judge Raniere by their morals rather than the law.

Because the questioning focused on such intimate topics, potential panelists’ personal beliefs often took center stage.

“I don’t know that setting aside my own morals is a fair thing for anybody to ask,” one potential juror who said he was opposed to polyamory said to the judge at voir dire.

“I’m not asking you to set them aside,” U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis responded. “I’m asking you to apply the law. … The morals were dealt with by Congress in establishing these laws.”

The judge indicated Raniere.

“I’m not at church or a temple,” he said. “I’m in a courtroom, and this person’s life depends on jurors following the law.”

Allison Mack leaves Brooklyn federal court. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The child-exploitation allegations against Raniere posed more problems during voir dire as scores of potential jurors told Judge Garaufis they were so repulsed by the accusations that they would not be able to judge Raniere fairly.

Garaufis at times seemed frustrated by this, indicating he thought it should be obvious most people would be disturbed to hear of potential sexual violence against children but still be able to put it aside in the interest of justice.

“It’s not a pleasant project to deal with these things, but it’s an obligation that people take on because it’s their civic duty,” the judge said at one point.

One of the 12 jurors selected was a young Muslim man who works for a large bank and told the court that, with the Ramadan holiday upcoming, he was not supposed to see evidence that contained any nude photos or sexual content during his fast.

Ramadan began Sunday and ends Tuesday, June 4. The trial is expected to last six weeks, until approximately mid-June. It’s not clear what the parties intend to do.

Prosecutors have alleged Raniere used “collateral” — nude photos or other compromising information about the women in DOS — to keep them enslaved.

Other jurors selected for the trial include a a hotel employee, a hospital physical therapist and a woman who works in human resources.

The six alternates include an Uber driver who said he would work the night shift while serving days on the jury, a man who works in flight-safety training at LaGuardia Airport, an occupational therapist for the Department of Education, a retiree, an employee of a major law firm, and a woman who works with disabled children and has been taking prescriptions of Oxycodone for two years to treat her back pain. One of the alternates said she was physically and emotionally abused by her mother as a child.

Hair cropped close to his head in a little-boy cut, Raniere wore a dark sweater, a white collared shirt with a blazingly starched collar, and dark-rimmed glasses for the entirety of the jury-selection process. Each of his five female co-defendants has pleaded guilty in approximately the last seven weeks: mother-daughter duo Nancy and Lauren Salzman, “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, and NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell.

One woman who was called for voir dire said she works at a public relations agency for the entertainment industry and that she is colleagues with Mack’s personal publicist.

“She’s a client of our agency, and working with talent, that’s our first instinct, to protect our talent,” the woman said.

Another woman said she worked as a historian and was writing a book about slavery, and therefore could not serve on the case because the women in DOS are said to have been enslaved.

The trial is expected to be emotionally charged and probe intimate topics not often discussed in federal courtrooms. One of the 12 final jurors appeared thoughtful about the issues during her questioning.

“With the #MeToo movement,” she said, “there’s people all over America talking about what’s right, what’s wrong, where’s the line?”

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