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NXIVM guru's lifestyle unusual but legal, his attorney tells jury

Defendant Keith Raniere, center, leader of NXIVM, in

Defendant Keith Raniere, center, leader of NXIVM, in a courtroom drawing from May 7. Credit: Elizabeth Williams via AP

Keith Raniere’s polyamorous relationships with members of his NXIVM self-help group and a secret master-slave sect that branded women and provided him sex partners was an unusual but not illegal lifestyle, his defense lawyer said Monday at his Brooklyn federal court sex-trafficking trial.

“The conduct objectively is pretty out there,” Raniere lawyer Marc Agnifilo told jurors during his summation. “It’s really pretty out there. But that didn’t make it a crime. It’s just out there. There’s a lot of stuff that’s pretty out there that’s not a crime.”

Prosecutors contended at the six-week trial that the alleged sex-cult guru got women in the slave group to give up nude pictures and other items and used the threat of exposure to blackmail them into sex. Agnifilo called joining a “choice” that helped some women and said no one who left was punished.

“It’s not there to be a threat, because if it was, someone would have been threatened,” he argued. “They [prosecutors] didn’t find that person because there isn’t that person.”

Raniere, 58, founded NXIVM in Clifton Park, an Albany suburb, in the 1990s, attracting an estimated 17,000 students to buy courses based on his personal-growth philosophies, but allegedly turned it into a personality cult, calling himself “Vanguard” and using it to manipulate and control women.

He is charged with conspiracy, racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor, identity theft, taking lascivious pictures of an underage girl and other crimes. Five of his top aides, all women, have pleaded guilty to related crimes. The eight-man, four-woman jury is expected to get the case Tuesday or Wednesday.

At trial, prosecutors presented testimony from six ex-members, including four women who had been part of the slave sect, called DOS. They told wrenching stories of how it was pitched as a mentoring group for female empowerment but led to branding rituals, submissive sex and a planned bondage dungeon.

In her closing, prosecutor Moira Penza described the Clifton Park area as a well-heeled community of “manicured lawns and tree-lined streets” where suburban town houses hid scenes of women strapped to tables for sex or screaming in pain as they were branded.

“What happened behind the closed doors of these cookie-cutter homes could seem straight out of a horror movie,” she said. “But for the victims of this defendant, it was all too real.”

She told the panel that Raniere used the same techniques as abusive partners — isolating, demeaning and badgering — to wear down his targets and bend them to his will.

“The why’s in this case are as old as time — sex, money and power,” she said. “He was the ruler, with no check on his power … The defendant used tactics that destroyed their victims' sense of self … making them pliable and vulnerable.”

One key charge involves the complicated story of a Mexican woman named Daniela, whose last name was withheld, who testified that she was targeted for sex by Raniere at her 18th birthday, then punished for showing interest in another man by being confined in a room at her family’s home for two years.

Prosecutors contend NXIVM used her illegal immigration status and withheld her birth certificate to make her perform free “forced labor,” but Agnifilo said they were inventing a crime to charge Raniere in a family dispute.

“Why is all of this Keith Raniere’s fault?” he said. “How is this all on him when there’s a dad?”

Despite testimony about sex, Raniere is not charged with rape or sexual assault. The “sex trafficking” requires proof that the “masters” who told their slaves to seduce Raniere did so with a “commercial” motive — advancement in the business end of NXIVM, prosecutors say.

Agnifilo, however, said prosecutors had chosen a charge that didn’t fit the alleged crime.

“You may think it’s disgusting, you may think it’s offensive, but it’s just not commercial,” he said. “That’s not what it is. It’s a problem of a different nature.”

Closing arguments resume Tuesday, followed by jury instructions.

CORRECTION: The jury in the case had eight men and four women. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number.

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