A motion for a mistrial was denied on Thursday by a judge who brought accused Nxivm sex cult leader Keith Raniere’s trial to a screeching halt the day before — when he accused a defense attorney of driving a witness toward a nervous breakdown.
“You went way over the line,” Judge Nicholas Garaufis growled Wednesday at lawyer Marc Agnifilo after ordering him to cease his cross examination of admitted slave-master Lauren Salzman. “I’m not going to have someone have a nervous breakdown on the witness stand.”
“This is a broken person,” the judge barked, gesturing toward the empty witness box where Salzman, once a high-ranking Nxivm member, had spent the afternoon crying as she testified about her commitment to Raniere involvement in the secret sorority, called DOS.
Agnifilo had been grilling Salzman for less than five hours when he was abruptly cut off by Garaufis — spurring his mistrial motion. In court papers, he claimed Raniere’s constitutional rights were violated.
“This is a critical cooperating witness,” Agnifilo and his co-counsel Teny Geragos wrote in the motion filed early Thursday. “If this witness is indeed ‘damaged,’ that is not the fault of the defendant who is, after all, seeking to demonstrate her lack of credibility.
“The jury must be able to see this witness for whatever she is — good, bad or indifferent — without the Court saving her by stopping her mid-testimony and ordering the defendant to ask her no more questions.”
During her testimony, Salzman, 42, said she’d recruited women into the master-slave group where they were branded with Raniere’s initials — and some slaves were ordered to have sex with him.
Salzman frequently broke down crying during her testimony as she recounted how the accused cult leader frequently told her he wanted to have a baby with her, but then would tell her she wasn’t up to his “ethical standards.”
Near the end of the day Wednesday, Salzman admitted she only joined DOS because she was trying to “prove to Keith” that she was good enough for him.
“It put it above everything else,” she said before dissolving into tears and prompting Garaufis to tell Agnifilo to “sit down.”
After jurors and Salzman were excused, the judge ripped into the defense attorney.
“As a human being, I thought it was the right decision,” he told Agnifilo about cutting off his questioning. “Before I’m a judge, I’m a human being, and I’m not going to allow someone to be placed in these circumstances.”
Earlier Wednesday, Salzman testified she had no idea when she joined the secret women’s group that there would be sex involved — and that she only found out that was the plan all along after she’d been indicted and was reading messages of Raniere’s obtained by the government.
“He says there’s gonna be the DOS that other people know, and that there’s going to be this secret sex part of DOS where we get other people to pleasure us,” she said, referencing the messages.
Salzman pleaded guilty earlier this year to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, while Raniere is on trial for sex trafficking and other charges.
Before she stepped down for the day, she said she took responsibility because she had committed the crimes.
“I did exactly what Keith taught me to do, which is try and fix it,” she said.
As he left court, Salzman’s lawyer Hector Diaz said his client’s testimony had been “extremely emotional and difficult for her.”
In his motion, Agnifilo and Geragos pointed to other actions Garaufis could’ve taken instead of ending Salzman’s testimony altogether — such as giving her a break or adjourning for the day.
“But the Court opted to cause the jury to believe unfairly that defense counsel had done something wrong to a witness in a case with highly sensitive issues and to fully terminate a critical cross-examination without any notice or warning whatsoever,” they wrote. “there is no coming back from this. The damage is done.”
Additional reporting by Lia Eustachewich
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