The combative female lawyer defending sexual predators R. Kelly and Bill Cosby

R&B singer R. Kelly's lawyer Jennifer Bonjean speaking to the media following the sentencing hearing at Brooklyn Federal Court in New York on June 29, 2022. AFP
Attorney Jennifer Bonjean arriving for the sentencing hearing of R. Kelly at Brooklyn Federal Court in New York, on June 29, 2022. AFP

NEW YORK – Ms Jennifer Bonjean, an American defence lawyer who has the words “not guilty” tattooed on her right arm, called one woman who accused singer 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 American R&B star, of “every single bit of humanity that he has”.

Ms Bonjean, who was 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 American comedian Bill Cosby get his sexual assault conviction overturned last year, which led to his being freed from prison.

She 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 defence,” Ms Bonjean, 52, said in an interview last week shortly before 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 defence, but it has attracted attention at a time when #MeToo-era cases are reaching trial, as she has urged jurors to be sceptical 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 scrutinise. 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.

Ms Lili Bernard, who has sued Cosby and accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting her in 1990, said she was upset by Ms Bonjean’s behaviour earlier this year, when she defended 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, Ms Judy Huth, and other accusers “victim blaming and victim shaming”.

Originally from Valparaiso, Indiana, Ms Bonjean is a classically trained opera singer who earned a master’s degree in music. She once worked at a rape crisis centre 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 defence work after gravitating towards “underdog” clients. As a lawyer who views prosecutorial overstep as her driving force, she gained prominence by focusing on so-called wrongful conviction cases.

Mr 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 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 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.

Remote video URL

Ms Bonjean, whose firm is based in New York, said she considers herself a feminist, insisting that the label is not inconsistent with her work as a defence 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 would not 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.”

Attorney Jennifer Bonjean comforting R. Kelly at his sentencing hearing in Brooklyn, New York, on June 29, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Her highest-profile success has been her role in appealing Cosby’s sexual assault conviction. She and her co-counsels convinced the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that prosecutors violated Cosby’s rights by reneging on an apparent promise not to charge him on allegations that he drugged and sexually assaulted Ms Andrea Constand in 2004.

Cosby’s more recent civil trial ended with a jury finding against him that awarded Ms Huth US$500,000 (S$710,000) in damages.

In 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. NYTIMES

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.