Jury selection starts Tuesday in Minneapolis in the federal child sex trafficking trial of Anton Lazzaro, a once-rising figure in Minnesota Republican Party politics who has been in custody since his August 2021 arrest.
The 32-year-old briefly returned to court Monday to settle final legal motions before his trial begins. Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz said he expected a jury to be picked by the end of Tuesday and for opening statements to start Wednesday morning.
Lazzaro faces the possibility of decades in prison if convicted. He has been indicted on seven counts that include conspiracy, sex trafficking of a minor and obstruction. Gisela Castro Medina, a 20-year-old former University of St. Thomas student who has since pleaded guilty in the case, is expected to testify about meeting Lazzaro through a "sugar daddy" website, and being paid for sex before agreeing to help recruit other young girls — some 15 and 16 years old — to have sex with the GOP donor for money.
Lazzaro on Monday formally pleaded not guilty to all counts of a superseding indictment filed this month. Much of Monday's 90-minute hearing patched up what the prosecution and defense can and cannot tell jurors as they make their respective cases.
Schiltz is barring any mention before the jury of previously litigated arguments, such as claims from Lazzaro that he is being selectively or vindictively prosecuted for his political affiliations and wealth. The judge previously refused to dismiss the case on those grounds and in January rejected a letter sent by Lazzaro urging him to reconsider.
Schiltz will also not allow attacks on prosecutors' political leanings or contributions, nor will he permit reference to Lazzaro's past efforts to investigate U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
Lazzaro has tried to argue that the alleged victims in this case consented to sex and that Minnesota's age of consent – 16 – should also be a focus.
Schiltz said Monday that both parties may introduce evidence about what Lazzaro and the alleged victims said or did. But the defense cannot argue that because an alleged victim consented, another statute was not violated, the judge added.
Schiltz is allowing testimony about Lazzaro's involvement in adult entertainment, namely his production of adult pornography, because he allegedly showed some of the videos to victims and offered another victim's adult sister $6,000 to star in a video. Lazzaro allegedly told two victims that they could make even more money if they participated in his pornography videos when they turned 18.
Schiltz will not, however, allow reference to the title of Lazzaro's pornography brand: "Only Tiny Teens."
Lazzaro's defense team asked Schiltz to bar prosecutors and witnesses "from making inappropriate comments or arguments based on personal disapproval of otherwise lawful sexual preferences and relationships" in reference to Lazzaro's relations to those who are "much younger than he."
"We're not trying propriety, we're trying legality," Schiltz said Monday.
Schiltz is meanwhile barring a link in defense arguments that Minnesota's 16-year age of consent could be used to argue that no crimes were committed. The judge said that age of consent "has nothing to do with this case," which alleges sex trafficking of minors.
Five alleged victims are expected to testify against Lazzaro, as are relatives and other girls who accompanied an alleged victim as Lazzaro sent an Uber to retrieve them from a slumber party one evening.
Lazzaro's mother could testify as a character witness in his defense, as could a private witness hired by the legal team, according to defense attorney Daniel Gerdts.
Lazzaro appeared in court Monday wearing an orange, jail-issued jumpsuit. Gerdts said that Lazzaro's fiancée planned to drop off civilian clothing for him to wear during the trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams on Monday said that the government expected to rest its case next Tuesday, much earlier than initial estimates calling for a three-week trial.
One of the more unusual legal matters contemplated Monday included a request from Lazzaro that prosecutors not refer to him practicing witchcraft or voodoo. The government countered in court filings that it considered making such references because some alleged victims saw witchcraft and voodoo paraphernalia in his Hotel Ivy condo and that the evidence could be used to confirm that they were in his home. But Lazzaro is not likely to dispute their presence.
"It seems every trial there is a voodoo motion," Schiltz quipped Monday, before barring such references unless he gives permission in advance.