Defending R. Kelly and Bill Cosby, the Same Combative Lawyer
Jennifer Bonjean, a defense lawyer who has the words “not guilty” tattooed on her right arm, called one woman who accused R. Kelly of sexual abuse a “pathological liar.” She accused another of extortion. She tried to pick their accounts apart, and attacked prosecutors for stripping her client, the former R&B star, of “every single bit of humanity that he has.”
Ms. Bonjean, who was Mr. Kelly’s lead lawyer during the criminal trial in Chicago that ended with his conviction last week, has become known for her aggressive tactics in representing men accused of sexual misconduct in several of the highest profile cases of the #MeToo era.
She helped Bill Cosby get his sexual assault conviction overturned last year, which led to his being freed from prison. She has also represented Keith Raniere, once the leader of the Nxivm sex cult, as he appealed his conviction on sex trafficking and other charges, for which he was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
“Everyone’s entitled to a vigorous defense,” Ms. Bonjean, 52, said in an interview last week shortly before Mr. Kelly’s conviction on sex crimes involving minors was announced.
Her theatrical, knock-down-drag-out style is hardly atypical in the world of criminal defense, but it has attracted attention at a time when #MeToo-era cases are reaching trial, as she has urged jurors to be skeptical of women who have testified, often through tears, about being sexually abused.
“We are in an era of ‘believe women’ and I agree, but not in the courtroom,” Ms. Bonjean said during closing arguments in the Kelly case. “We don’t just believe women or believe anything. We scrutinize. There’s no place for mob-like thinking in a courtroom.”
That perspective and her relentless cross-examination of accusers, which typically involves drilling them on any inconsistencies in their accounts and questioning their motives, has drawn criticism from those who say it could scare abused women from coming forward.
Lili Bernard, who has sued Mr. Cosby and accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting her in 1990, said she was upset by Ms. Bonjean’s behavior earlier this year where she defended Mr. Cosby in a civil case brought by a woman who said he had sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager. Ms. Bernard, who attended the trial in California, called the lawyer’s cross-examination of that woman, Judy Huth, and other accusers “victim blaming and victim shaming.”
Originally from Valparaiso, Ind., Ms. Bonjean (pronounced bon-JEEN) is a classically trained opera singer who earned a master’s degree in music and once worked at a rape crisis center in Chicago, advocating for victims of sexual violence — a stint, she said, that some might now see “as ironic.”
That job led her to study at Loyola University Chicago’s law school with the intention of becoming a prosecutor, but she ended up going into defense work after gravitating toward “underdog” clients. As a lawyer who views prosecutorial overstep as her driving force, she gained prominence by focusing on so-called wrongful conviction cases.
Russell Ainsworth, a staff attorney at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, has worked with Ms. Bonjean on civil rights cases for a decade and said that typically, he plays the “straight guy,” while she “comes out swinging.”
“If I needed a lawyer to go to the mat for me, that’s the lawyer I would choose,” he said.
Her approach was on display earlier this year in the civil suit brought by Ms. Huth, who accused Mr. Cosby of sexually assaulting her at the Playboy Mansion in 1975, when she was 16.
During Ms. Bonjean’s cross-examination of Ms. Huth, she challenged her on why it had taken her decades to come forward with her accusation. At one point she suggested that Ms. Huth had kept quiet about the trip to the mansion, not because she had buried painful memories, but because she was uncomfortable telling people that she had gone there with Mr. Cosby because he is Black. Ms. Huth strongly denied that.
During the trial, Ms. Bonjean turned her attention to Ms. Bernard, and accused her in court of speaking with a juror during a break. She argued for a mistrial. (The judge denied Ms. Bonjean’s request.)
“In that little moment that she tried to falsely accuse me, I felt the wrath of her, the depths she would go to,” Ms. Bernard said in an interview.
Ms. Bonjean, whose firm is based in New York, said that she considers herself a feminist, insisting that the label is not inconsistent with her work as a defense lawyer for accused men. Her responsibility, she explained, is to exercise every legal lever at her disposal for her client, noting, “that will not always be consistent with sensitivity to a victim’s feelings.”
And she contends that if she were a male lawyer, people wouldn’t think twice about her approach, simply chalking it up to a lawyer doing his job.
“I’m supposed to be some type of ambassador — a vagina ambassador,” she said, “Seriously, I get a lot of those questions, like somehow I am traitorous to women by taking on these cases.”
During Mr. Kelly’s Chicago case, Ms. Bonjean was boldly combative at every turn. She fought to keep as much of the video footage away from the jury as possible, maintained a steady stream of objections and sometimes kept the fight for her client going on Twitter.
At one point, prosecutors complained to the judge about a tweet she posted in which she accused them of playing dirty tricks. Ms. Bonjean offered to refrain from tweeting about the court proceedings, she said, and the judge agreed. A few days later, Ms. Bonjean posted: “I’m not allowed to tweet but I think I can retweet,” sharing someone else’s tweet that quoted her from the trial, calling one of the government’s key witnesses “a liar, a thief and an extortionist.”
“I had to find what worked for me,” Ms. Bonjean said of her approach. “My aggressive style — some people call it fiery, some people call it, whatever words you want to use to describe it, that was the way that I could be effective.”
Debra S. Katz, a lawyer who has represented high-profile sexual misconduct accusers, said that defense tactics seeking to shred a woman’s credibility or impugn her character run the risk of failing with a jury, citing Harvey Weinstein’s conviction in New York, during which she represented one of the women accusing the producer of sexual assault.
“Everybody deserves a defense, but to attack women in this way is, in my view, absolutely unconscionable,” Ms. Katz said.
Ms. Bonjean’s highest profile success has been her role in appealing Mr. Cosby’s sexual assault conviction. She and her co-counsels persuaded the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that prosecutors violated Mr. Cosby’s rights by reneging on an apparent promise not to charge him on allegations that he drugged and sexually assaulted Andrea Constand in 2004.
Mr. Cosby’s more recent civil trial ended with a jury finding against him that awarded Ms. Huth $500,000 in damages.
In Mr. Kelly’s recent case, he was found guilty of some of the most serious charges, including of coercing minors into sexual activity and producing child sexual abuse videos. He was acquitted on several other charges, including that he had sought to obstruct an earlier investigation.
In both cases, Ms. Bonjean has pledged to mount a vigorous appeal.
Robert Chiarito contributed reporting from Chicago.