Robert Kraft claimed a short-term victory Tuesday when a judge temporarily barred the release of surveillance videos of the Patriots owner allegedly paying for sex acts in a Florida spa, writing that the “fairly unremarkable” allegations have dominated the headlines because the defendant owns “the most successful franchise” in the National Football League.
Kraft, 77, is charged in Palm Beach County with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in January in Jupiter, Fla. He’s denied engaging in illegal activity, pleaded not guilty, and requested a jury trial.
Police got a warrant to secretly equip the spa with surveillance cameras, which allegedly captured Kraft and 24 other men paying for sex acts in a massage room.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, Judge Leonard Hanser agreed with Kraft and issued a protective order that temporarily bars authorities from releasing the videos to the Globe and other news organizations. Releasing such evidence to the media would routinely occur under Florida public records law.
And Hanser’s order doesn’t mean the videos will never see the light of the day.
He ruled that the tapes will not be released until a jury is sworn if Kraft goes to a trial, prosecutors decline to pursue charges, the case is resolved via plea agreement, or “any other time at which the court finds the fair trial rights of Defendant are not at risk, after notice to the parties and hearing thereon.”
Hanser wrote that delaying public disclosure of the footage “must be limited to only such duration as necessary to avoid tainting the jury pool.” He said he’s also considered Kraft’s arguments for keeping the videos from the public — on the grounds of his right to privacy and a public record exemption for active criminal probes — and “does not find these arguments legally or factually sufficient to support Defendant’s request.”
Hanser used colorful language when he laid out the issues in his ruling.
“A seventy-eight year old man [Kraft turns 78 in June] walks into a day spa and, in addition to receiving conventional spa services, he allegedly engages in illegal sexual activity,” Hanser wrote. “That seems like a rather tawdry but fairly unremarkable event. But if that man is the owner of the most successful franchise in, arguably, the most popular professional sport in the United States, an entirely different dynamic arises, especially if the encounter is captured on video tape, and the incident is the focus of much media attention and pretrial publicity.”
Hanser wrote that “The Court concludes that Defendant’s right to a fair trial requires the disputed video tape be withheld from [media] Intervenors for a limited duration.”
A hearing on Kraft’s separate motion to suppress the video evidence is slated for Friday. That motion, if successful, would bar prosecutors from showing the clips to jurors at trial.
Hanser wrote in his order Tuesday that blocking the media at this juncture from accessing the footage “is necessary to prevent a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice. . . . The [media outlets’] argument to disclose at this time is seriously undercut by the graphic nature of the descriptions [of the alleged sex acts] in the” probable cause affidavits already made public.
The judge said releasing the footage now would effectively give potential jurors “the opportunity to preview trial evidence, including identifying Defendant as the person depicted in the videotapes.”
During jury selection, Hanser wrote, “attorneys are not permitted to discuss evidence to be presented at trial. Were these videotapes put in the public sphere, what is impermissible at voir dire would have already been accomplished. Defendants are guaranteed a fair and impartial trial by jury, not a trial by community.”
Hanser said it is “difficult for this Court to see how providing opportunities to preview the evidence does not jeopardize Defendant’s right to a fair trial. Although Defendant’s name may be fairly well-known as a public figure, his facial characteristics and body image most likely are not nearly as well-known.”
The judge said the case has drawn heavy media attention not because of the nature of the allegations. “Rather, it is because Defendant is who he is,” Hanser wrote.
Separately, authorities on Monday arrested Shen Mingbi, 58, one of the women who allegedly performed a sex act on Kraft for a fee inside the spa, on charges of deriving support from proceeds of prostitution and eight counts of offering to commit prostitution, stemming from her encounters with Kraft and other men, records show.
Mingbi on Tuesday made her initial appearance in a Palm Beach County courtroom, where she was ordered not to work in a massage parlor or spa while the case is pending and surrender her passport and travel documents, records show. Her next hearing is slated for May 22.
A probable cause affidavit filed in her case says that a hidden camera captured her and another woman, Lei Wang, 45, performing sex acts on Kraft on Jan. 19, and Mingbi later wiping Kraft with a towel.
Then, the filing says, “Kraft handed both Wang and Mingbi cash, and they responded by hugging him. Wang and Mingbi then proceeded to finish dressing Kraft, and he left the room.”
Wang is also charged in connection with the case.