BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – As a federal trial dubbed the biggest cult case in decades kicks off next week in Brooklyn, experts and lawyers across the country are watching closely to see how it shapes the prosecution of cult leaders and the public perception of their organizations.
Keith Raniere, co-founder of the purported self-help group NXIVM, begins what is expected to be a six-week trial May 7 on charges including forced labor, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, wire fraud and violations of federal anti-racketeering law. He’s accused of leading a secretive group called DOS within NXIVM (pronounced Nexium), in which women served as slaves, were branded with his initials and forced to have sex with him.
Five women previously charged in the case — mother-daughter duo Nancy and Lauren Salzman; NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell; Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman; and “Smallville” actress Allison Mack — have all pleaded guilty in recent months, leaving Raniere to stand trial alone. It’s not clear whether any of the women will cooperate against him, though there has been speculation that Mack and Lauren Salzman might.
Cults are not illegal in the United States, though they can engage in illegal activity, as the NXIVM members are alleged to have done. Because it is rare for cult cases to end up before juries, though, researchers are paying attention to see whether the government will allow or use cultic buzzwords like “brainwashing” that might detract from the charges.
“I don’t know if they’re going to use any cult language at all,” said Janja Lalich, a Fulbright scholar who spent 10 years in the 1970s as a member of the Democratic Workers Party, a San Francisco-based political cult. “On some level I feel like they don’t need to. The important thing is to not mystify it.”
Phil Elberg, a lawyer with experience in civil cult litigation, echoed this strategy tip.
“I believe if you tell the story in exquisite detail, [jurors] will know it’s a cult,” Elberg said. “Proving it’s a cult gets you nothing.”
St. John’s University law professor Robin Boyle Laisure called for authorities to prosecute cult leaders under human-trafficking laws in a 2016 article for the Oregon Review of International Law.
These laws are useful in such cases, Boyle said, “because they don’t rely on the mental state of the victim.”
But Lalich said concepts of mind control will likely come up during witness testimony, and prosecutors should try to prepare the jury for that. She emphasized the importance of relating to the jury that cults use “basic social psychology” to reel in and retain members.
“There’s nothing tricky that goes on,” she said. “It’s really about everyday influence and peer pressure. … Maybe using some everyday examples that jurors can relate to — because we’re all influenced, all the time, by everything all around us.”
Lalich noted as one example that people can be influenced into buying a piece of clothing that doesn’t really fit if they’re flattered by a friend or a salesperson.
“I’m really hoping this case will be a precedent-setting case that will teach the public, hey, it could happen to you, if you’re lied to by the right person,” said Steve Hassan, a mental health counselor and mind-control expert who has spent over 40 years helping people leave destructive cults. Hassan himself was once a member of the Unification Church, or “Moonies,” which he calls a cult.
Other experts said prosecutors should be more direct about the cultic aspects of the trial. Both Hassan and Alan Scheflin, professor emeritus at Santa Clara University School of Law and an expert on the legal issues surrounding mind and behavior control, said prosecutors should not totally ignore the mind-control aspects of the case.
“The law has to progress to new models and new information,” said Hassan, later adding: “I’m afraid that the [government] lawyers, due to their ignorance of social psychology and social science, are going to try to fit this round peg into a square hole, and it’s not going to fit.”
Raniere’s trial kicks off 18 months into the #MeToo era, and the issue of consent is also expected to loom large. With no federal definition of the term, each state defines consent a little differently, and Professor Boyle noted that the New York definition is unlikely to come up in a federal trial.
Marc Agnifilo, a lawyer for Raniere, has told reporters that consent could be a defense in his arsenal. Boyle said Rainere could claim that some of the alleged crimes were simply sex games between consenting adults — “Kinky, yes. Not illegal.”
Raniere could also say the women turned over collateral as “kind of a game,” Boyle continued.
Prosecutors have alleged that women in DOS handed over nude photos or other compromising information to join the group. Several experts said evidence of this would negate any actual consent.
“Consent in the face of extortion is not consent,” said Peter Skolnik, a New Jersey lawyer who has done battle with NXIVM since 2006. “All of my instincts as a lawyer tell me that if you’re being extorted, your consent is based on the extortion.”
Raniere does face a state law extortion charge under a sweeping racketeering count. Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman were also named on this charge.
The child pornography and exploitation charges are a different beast and may be a death knell for Raniere’s defense case, multiple experts said. They all focused their analysis instead on a defense to the charges involving adult women.
“Did they in fact consent in a knowing way that legally is sustainable?” asked Skolnik. “I don’t think so. But that is a very thin line, and one that I’m not sure that the courts have a great deal of experience in dealing with.”
Boyle said proof of the collateral allegations could eliminate the consent defense.
As for the charge that Raniere had his initials branded on the pubic areas of DOS members, Elberg noted that the case would be very different if those marks were tattoos.
Scheflin said humans have plenty of ways to show they “belong to somebody else” — an argument that could work in the defense’s favor.
“Wedding rings are an example,” he said. “We want to belong to more than just ourselves.”
Lalich, who published a 2006 recovery book about leaving destructive cults, warned that witnesses could potentially feel empowered by their testimony, but that sitting through this trial will also likely be “hell” for people personally affected by Raniere’s alleged crimes.
Depending on how it’s handled, Lalich said it could be good news for either side if cooperating witnesses become triggered on the stand.
Lalich said she hoped lawyers for Allison Mack would work with her to prepare for such moments, in the event that she testifies.
“Being triggered means being brought back to that mindset,” Lalich said. “Just sitting across from Raniere and having him staring at her, that’s going to be really difficult for her. … So that’s another risk. That could potentially get her off-balance when she’s on the stand.”
If Raniere’s lawyers are smart, Lalich added, they’ll purposely try to trigger the prosecution’s NXIVM witnesses, perhaps by reminding them of the “good times” they had with Raniere or even showing videos.
The defense team would have to tread lightly in that event, as the perception of badgering an uncomfortable or crying witness would not curry favor with the jury.
“They have a true conundrum to deal with” in that sense, Lalich said.
It’s not yet clear whether Raniere will take the stand in his own defense.
“A lot of [Raniere’s] success was predicated on him being able to present himself as eminently reasonable, and eminently kind, and eminently well-meaning,” Skolnik said. “And I’m sure that that is the show that he will put on for the jury.”
Raniere’s supposed charms could be outweighed, however, by the prosecution’s substantial evidence and encyclopedic knowledge of the case, as well as the allegations of child sexual exploitation.
“I believe the prosecution is going to be able to create a world in which the jury hates him,” Elberg said.
Raniere’s trial is expected to be emotionally charged and widely publicized, and Dr. Lalich made clear she thinks Raniere is guilty.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a sadistic psychopath and sexual predator extraordinaire,” she said.
Lalich explained that the people who have been out of NXIVM the longest should theoretically be the most recovered from it — perhaps having reached what she called the “anger stage” by the time they testify. She said there could be power in explaining what their roles were within the organization, as well as how those roles served Raniere “and his needs and desires.”
Speaking to the possibility that Raniere’s trial will be helpful to cult victims coming forward, Lalich said it could show lawyers new ways to tackle destructive cults within the established legal system.
“If people can see that there’s other crimes that can be brought forward … [and] lawyers can see other ways to bring justice for victims, I think that’s a good thing,” said Lalich.
The NXIVM saga has long drawn headlines, particularly in the last year and a half as a New York Times interview with DOS member Sarah Edmondson and the arrests of Raniere, Mack and Bronfman thrust the group into the spotlight. Scheflin tried to put his finger on just what makes the case so captivating.
“It’s a rollicking good story filled with pain, emotion, despair — it’s a great drama,” he said. “At its bottom and in real terms, it’s nothing but sad. It’s sad for the manipulated, it’s sad for the manipulators, and it’s sad because we know this is going to happen again and again and again.”