A Nassau judge Tuesday denied a bid from star rapper Nicki Minaj's brother to set aside a verdict convicting the Baldwin man of raping his now-former stepdaughter — saying any jury misconduct wasn't enough for a reversal.
A jury in November 2017 convicted Jelani Maraj, then 38, of sexually assaulting the child victim after a trial in which the defense claimed the allegations were fabricated to try to extort $25 million from the defendant’s famous sister.
The victim had testified Maraj called her "his puppet" and raped her repeatedly between April and November 2015 while her mother was at work. Prosecutors said during the trial the abuse began when the girl was 11.
State Supreme Court Justice Robert McDonald said in announcing his ruling Tuesday in Nassau County Court that "not every misstep by a juror rises to the inherent and prejudicial level at which reversal is required."
Maraj, the judge said, failed to meet the "burden of proof that any misconduct here created a significant risk that a substantial right of the defendant was prejudiced."
Maraj is now facing up to life in prison following his convictions on charges of predatory sexual assault on a child and child endangerment. He's scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 18.
Nassau District Attorney's Office spokesman Brendan Brosh said prosecutors would "reserve comment for sentencing."
But Maraj's trial attorney, David Schwartz, said "there was clear jury misconduct."
He added that "outside influences," including social media posts and news articles, "affected that verdict" of "at least a few" jurors.
Attorney Stephen Scaring, who will handle an appeal for Maraj, said jurors "seem not to be able to resist" turning on their cellphones.
"The problem, of course, is that the information they're getting is so damaging to one side or the other that once it happens, it really in my view precludes a fair trial," Scaring said.
The defendant's mother, Carol Maraj, called the decision "unfair" after leaving court.
She said she read the transcripts of what previously had been sealed court records from the jury misconduct hearing and noted that "at least seven people" admitted to looking at blogs during the trial.
"The jurors admitted that they were swayed by TV, radio, the bloggers ... listening to what the comments were. Can you tell me why juror misconduct was not proven today? ... This is ridiculous," Carol Maraj said.
McDonald's decision followed an inquiry of jurors that began a year after the verdict and that took place in a sealed courtroom.
The inquiry began after the defense provided an affidavit from an alternate juror stating that jurors talked about the case against McDonald’s instructions, speculating about Jelani Maraj’s guilt before deliberations.
According to the affidavit, a number of jurors said early in the trial they believed Maraj was guilty, and one said if Nicki Minaj didn’t show up to testify, her brother was guilty.
The prosecution opposed tossing the verdict and provided affidavits from seven of the 12 deliberating jurors.
Those jurors said they didn’t talk about the case before deliberations, and denied exposure to blogs, newspaper articles, TV shows and social media posts on the case during the trial.