The judge who is presiding over the sexual assault case against star rapper Nicki Minaj’s brother has ordered an inquiry into defense claims of juror misconduct following the Baldwin man’s conviction last year for raping his now-former stepdaughter.
A Nassau County jury in November found Jelani Maraj, 39, guilty of predatory sexual assault on a child and child endangerment and he’s facing up to life in prison.
State Supreme Court Justice Robert McDonald’s decision followed an effort by the defense to have the verdict set aside before Maraj’s sentencing.
McDonald didn’t vacate the verdict, but scheduled a Nov. 15 hearing for an inquiry of jurors and alternate jurors to address allegations one alternate juror made in a defense affidavit.
“There is a need for the Court to conduct a hearing to determine the nature of the material placed before the jury and whether that material created a substantial risk of prejudice to the defendant,” the judge wrote in his Oct. 18 ruling.
Among the allegations is that the alternate juror said one juror claimed that if Nicki Minaj didn’t show up to testify, then Maraj was guilty.
The award-winning musician stayed away from the trial, but visited her brother in jail on the day after the verdict.
Maraj’s conviction followed a trial in which the defense claimed the allegations were invented to try to extort $25 million from the man’s famous sister. The victim testified Maraj raped her repeatedly starting when she was 11, calling her “his puppet” and telling her she had “no say” in what he did to her.
“We stand by the conviction,” Nassau district attorney’s office spokesman Brendan Brosh said Wednesday in reaction to McDonald’s decision.
Garden City attorney David Schwartz, one of Maraj’s lawyers, said he believed the ruling “speaks for itself.”
The alternate juror’s affidavit said jurors talked about the case against the judge’s instructions, speculating about Maraj’s guilt during the trial and before deliberations started, records show.
That affidavit also said that early in the trial, a number of jurors said they believed Maraj was guilty, and that during those discussions one juror stated: “I can’t wait for him to be found guilty.”
Schwartz also submitted an affidavit that says a courtroom observer told him that he spoke to several jurors after the verdict and they spoke of misconduct by the panel.
That affidavit, which the judge said contained “hearsay allegations,” says among its claims that several jurors read blogs about the case during the trial, and one watched an episode of "The Wendy Williams Show" during the trial in which the talk show’s host berated Maraj and said he was guilty.
McDonald turned down the defense’s motion to have the verdict tossed on other grounds, including a claim that alleged he abused his discretion by letting the victim’s then-10-year-old brother testify.
The defense also alleged prosecutorial misconduct. But McDonald found that “notwithstanding some possible improprieties on the part of the prosecutor,” evidence was “more than legally sufficient” to establish Maraj’s guilt.
The prosecution opposed tossing the verdict and provided affidavits from seven of the 12 jurors who deliberated.
Records show the seven swore they didn’t hear any other juror say he or she couldn’t wait for Maraj to be found guilty, and denied exposure to blogs, newspaper articles, TV shows or social media postings on the case during the trial.
Those jurors also said they didn’t talk about the case before deliberations, and didn’t talk about the case with the alternate juror who provided the defense affidavit, the decision says.
But McDonald noted that the affidavit of one of those seven jurors was significant for what it didn’t say. That panelist didn’t deny hearing any other jurors say that if Minaj didn’t testify, Maraj must be guilty, and didn’t deny that other jurors talked about the case before deliberations.
That juror wrote that if at any time “someone began to discuss what just transpired in the courtroom, I or another juror would remind them that we are not supposed to talk about that and the conversation would cease.”