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Robert Kraft takes first step of new legal strategy in solicitation of prostitution case

Robert Kraft.
Robert Kraft. Getty Images/File

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution in Florida and asked for a jury trial, a reversal from a prior legal filing in which the billionaire’s defense team requested a judge alone decide the case.

Hours after Kraft’s court filing became public, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the case Tuesday night at the owners meetings in Arizona, saying that the league’s personal conduct policy “applies to everybody.”

He declined to say whether he will punish Kraft, regardless of how his legal situation is resolved.

“It will be done after we get all the facts, we have all the information, and we’ll be fair and smart about it,” Goodell said.

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Kraft’s new legal strategy was disclosed Tuesday in a brief court filing in Palm Beach County in which Kraft also waived his right to an arraignment that had been scheduled for Thursday.

Kraft, who is attending NFL owners meetings this week in Arizona, did not appear in court. The filing was signed by Kraft attorney Jack A. Goldberger.

“Counsel having previously entered a Notice of Appearance on behalf of ROBERT KRAFT, hereby waives arraignment, pleads not guilty to all charges and requests a jury trial in the above styled cause,” said the filing.

Kraft was one of more than two dozen men charged in February with soliciting sex at a massage parlor at a strip mall in Jupiter. At that time, his lawyers had entered a plea of not guilty, and had requested a bench trial, in which a judge alone would decide the case.

The filing came just days after Kraft issued a public apology, but did not admit guilt. Kraft, through a spokesman, has denied engaging in any illegal activity. A message left with a Patriots spokesman was not returned Tuesday.

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The NFL’s conduct policy states, “It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.”

In 2014, Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 for pleading guilty to one misdemeanor count of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. In 2018, Goodell fined Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson $2.75 million over misconduct in the team’s workplace and accepted Richardson’s pledge to sell the team.

Michael B. Edmondson, a spokesman for Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, confirmed that the Thursday arraignment hearing for Kraft was canceled, but noted that Thursday hearings for other defendants in the case will proceed.

Messages left with attorneys for Kraft were not returned.

One Florida defense attorney not involved in the case said Kraft’s legal team appears to be laying the groundwork for a possible trial that could appeal to jurors’ emotions.

Eric M. Matheny said a jury trial presents the opportunity for “more of an emotional appeal as opposed to a legal argument to be made.”

“When you want a jury, you want the theatrics of a trial,” he said. ‘You want them to see your client as a human being, that he was perhaps set up.”

Judges, he said, “tend to focus more on the legal issues.”

“It’s a less emotionally targeted process when you have a judge instead of a jury,” he said.

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Hidden cameras allegedly captured video of women performing sex acts on Kraft when he visited the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla., on Jan. 19 and 20, according to court records. The footage also allegedly showed Kraft handing the women cash after the acts.

Kraft was one of 25 men nabbed in the Orchids sting, part of a larger probe into suspected human trafficking at spas in multiple Florida counties. Local police installed hidden cameras inside Orchids pursuant to a warrant, legal filings show. Neither Kraft nor any of the other spa patrons has been charged with human trafficking.

Instead, Kraft faces two misdemeanor counts of soliciting another to commit prostitution.

An affidavit filed in court said that on both visits, Kraft was brought to a massage room, where sex acts were performed on him.

Robert Whittel, another Florida criminal defense attorney also not involved in the case, said he would have been surprised if Kraft’s team had not sought a jury trial. A typical trial for solicitation of prostitution in Florida would feature a six-juror panel with one alternate, he said.

“You only need to peel one off to mistry the case, to have a hung jury,” said Whittel.

Whittel said a judge would still need to make important legal determinations in the case.

Kraft’s lawyers have raised questions about the legality of videotaping people inside the spa and a traffic stop initiated by law enforcement after Kraft left the spa on Jan. 19.

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“The video and the traffic stop were illegal and law enforcement just doesn’t want to admit it,” Kraft’s attorney William Burck told ESPN last week.

A judge would likely rule on whether authorities videotaping people inside the spa was constitutionally permissible, Whittel said. Pretrial motions are important because they could substantially limit what a jury would see or hear in terms of evidence, including video footage, Whittel said.

Kraft recently broke his silence on the case when he released a lengthy apology.

“I am truly sorry,’’ he said in a statement released Saturday. “I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans, and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.”

Earlier this month, Florida prosecutors offered to drop the misdemeanor charges against all the Orchids defendants including Kraft, in exchange for the men admitting they would have been proven guilty at trial.

Under the proposed agreement, known as deferred prosecution, Kraft and the other defendants would be required to perform 100 hours of community service, pay court fees, and attend a course about the social harm caused by prostitution and human trafficking. In exchange, defendants could have their cases dismissed and records expunged if they avoided any further brushes with the law for a fixed amount of time.

Negotiations between Kraft’s attorneys and prosecutors were ongoing last week. In a Tuesday e-mail, Edmondson, the spokesman for the state attorney’s office, said his office does not comment on plea negotiations.

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Joëlle Anne Moreno, a law professor at Florida International University, said in an e-mail on Tuesday that “Kraft’s change of heart about a bench trial may indicate that plea negotiations have — so far — been unsuccessful.”

“The demand for a jury might also be understood as a ‘bring it’ gesture — in the wake of Kraft’s decision to refuse the deferred prosecution offer,” said Moreno in the e-mail.

Matheny, meanwhile, said it is safe to assume that negotiations are ongoing.

“Plea negotiations are ongoing until the moment a jury is lining up outside the courtroom,” he said. “It’s brinkmanship is what it is.”

Whittel agreed that negotiations are ongoing. He thought Kraft would be seeking a pretrial resolution that does not include him having to admit guilt.

“I think this is absolutely a legal tug-of-war,” Whittel said.


Bob Hohler and John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.