Some supporters of Keith Raniere, ex-leader of alleged cult NXIVM, keep fighting for him

Five supporters of the former leader of the alleged cult NXIVM tell CBS News that they believe Keith Raniere was wrongfully convicted. The former members of the group spoke exclusively to CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste ahead of Raniere's sentencing next month. 

A jury found him guilty last year of seven charges, including sex trafficking and racketeering. The former NXIVM members, who had not spoken publicly until now, told CBS News they believe Raniere was the victim of a trial by media and prosecutorial misconduct. The three men and two women said they do not believe they were part of a cult, contradicting other former members of the organization who've said publicly that they believe they were.

Raniere founded NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in 1998 in Albany, New York. The organization expanded with branches across the United States and into Mexico and Canada. Thousands of people took self-help and development courses, known as Executive Success Programs (ESP), through NXIVM.

"NXIVM was just a name, a parent company, with a bunch of companies underneath it," Marc Elliot explained to CBS News. Elliot said he suffered from Tourette's Syndrome for 20 years before he participated in one of the group's ESP courses.

"I ended up beating my Tourette's completely mind over body," he said, speaking out in support of Raniere.

But many have claimed there was a much darker side to NXIVM, where Raniere sold lies and preyed on vulnerable women. In a civil lawsuit earlier this year, more than 80 former members of the group claimed the organization functioned as both a "Ponzi scheme and a coercive community," where people were systematically abused physically and emotionally and that it was "difficult, and in some cases impossible, to leave."

Inside the bizarre NXIVM sex cult 04:02

During or around 2015, prosecutors said, Raniere added a secret, female-only society to NXIVM called DOS or The Vow. In a new HBO series by the same name, former members of DOS claim women within the society were organized in levels, and were referred to as "masters" and "slaves." At the top of the organization was allegedly Raniere and the former "Smallville" actress Allison Mack. Some of the women in DOS were allegedly tasked with recruiting sexual partners for Raniere.

In court documents and publicly, former members of DOS claim they were forced to hand over collateral, including nude photos, in order to join the organization. They had to ask their "master" for permission to do everything — even when they could go to bed and what and how much they could eat. They were allegedly forced to keep strict diets, limiting them to as little as 500-800 calories per day.

According to court documents and evidence provided by former members, some women were even physically branded as part of their induction into DOS. Many believed they were being branded with a symbol that represented the natural elements, but in fact, it was Raniere and Mack's initials.

Former Battlestar Galactica actress Nicki Clyne is married to Mack and was a member of DOS. During Raniere's trial, a former member of DOS said Clyne was a recruiter for Raniere. Clyne has never been charged with a crime and is among those who still support him. She told CBS News that she believed it was unfortunate that the word NXIVM had become synonymous with the term "sex cult."

"I don't even know how to define what that is," she said.

But when CBS News pushed Clyne, and Michele Hatchette, another former member of DOS, on the brandings, neither would deny they had one.

"I think there is a difference between being branded and getting a brand," Hatchette said.

Clyne added: "We're not denying that certain things took place. There is evidence that certain things happened. How they happened, why they happened and how certain people chose them — that's a whole other conversation."

When CBS News asked the women if either had sexual relations with Raniere, they declined to answer.

"If I went up to you and asked how many people have you had sex with, it's none of my business," Hatchette said. "And we've been in a position where our personal lives have been made public without our permission."

"Our society, it's very sexist, still," added Eduardo Asunsolo, a former business partner of Raniere's and a friend who still supports him. "If you look at the Super Bowl, there's like men with strong arms, with brands. And when they're part of a secret fraternity, that brands, where they're branding themselves, it's a matter of honor. It's a matter of admiring them. It's great, you know, but when women supposedly have a brand, they must have been abused. And that is very offensive for women, in my opinion."

But Sarah Edmondson, a former member of DOS who now speaks out against NXIVM, told HBO she felt manipulated into getting the brand, and did not know it was Raniere and Mack's initials until she saw it in the mirror afterward.

"Everything in my body was saying don't do this, don't do this," she told HBO. She said as women got the brand they were squirming, sweating and crying.

In the civil lawsuit filed in January against Raniere and other leaders of NXIVM, some former members of DOS said they were forced to disrobe during the branding ceremony, read from a script stating they had requested the branding, and then lie down on a table and submit to the branding with a cauterizing iron in the pubic region. It was was done, they said, without anesthesia.

In audio played during Raniere's trial, he can be heard planning the branding ceremony with Mack.

"Do you think the person who is being branded should be completely nude and sort of held to the table sort of almost like a sacrifice? That's a feeling of submission," he told Mack.

But the group of five supporters CBS News spoke to continue to stand by NXIVM, DOS and the actions of its former leader, Raniere.

"When people say, 'Well, why would you believe in someone if they were convicted?' Well, it's because that system might not be working anymore," Asunsolo said.

Asunsolo said he believes Raniere is innocent, "but even if you do believe someone is guilty, then you can still stand by them because you love them, because you're a friend of theirs."

Elliot said he also believes Raniere is innocent, "but we didn't want to come and speak to the nation to get everyone to think that you need to believe us," he said. "That's not why we wanted to do this. When we're talking about justice, what we're talking about is, it's easy to support Keith right now because if you were in our shoes and over the last two years, we've witnessed personally the injustice of what this prosecution did to him and what they did to our community."

On Friday, Raniere's supporters delivered a petition, which is being called an affidavit, to prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York. The affidavit asks prosecutors to affirm they acted ethically during Raniere's trial, something the group feels they did not do.

"The affidavit is a very simple thing, in which we're saying to them, all we're asking you to do is can you affirm that you're honest? Can you affirm that you're not doing criminal behavior? You know, asking a prosecutor to say, can you just affirm that you didn't tamper with evidence? Is not a bad thing," Elliot said.

Among the petition signers is Amanda Knox, who spent almost four years in an Italian prison after being convicted of murdering her roommate. She was acquitted in 2015.

Amanda Knox blasts media coverage of trial 02:58

Knox told CBS News she has no opinion on the guilt or innocence of Raniere and has not followed the case personally enough to make any judgements. She said she was contacted by former members of NXIVM who asked her to sign the petition, which affirmed some principles of prosecutorial conduct that she said "any prosecutor should be able to affirm."

"I signed the petition because violation of these practices would constitute prosecutorial misconduct, regardless of Mr. Raniere's guilt or innocence," Knox said.

Among the allegations NXIVM supporters make against prosecutors, is that they threatened Hatchette with a perjury charge if she testified for the defense in Raniere's trial.

"I met with them twice, and then just before the trial, they called my lawyer and asked if I wanted to be a witness for them," Hatchette said. "They said if I decided to go on the stand and not come meet with them they would charge me with perjury. So if I decided to testify for the defense, I would have been risking going to jail just for sharing my experience."

Prosecutors declined to comment on the petition and the allegations. But they did point CBS News to a new court filing where they provide emails that appear to show Raniere helped orchestrate the affidavit from prison. The supporters admitted to CBS News that it was Raniere's idea.

Neil Glazer, an attorney for more than 80 of Raniere's victims, called the petition absurd and a publicity stunt, "orchestrated by Raniere to throw up smoke and mirrors and to peddle conspiracy theories to keep his remaining disciples in the fold."

Glazer told CBS News he's never seen anything like "this bizarre document" in all of his years of legal practice.

"These Raniere devotees allude to this questionnaire being some new kind of procedure they want to introduce into the system," he said. "If so, they have to actually work within the many mechanisms in our democratic system of governance to incorporate the change, rather than just show up en-masse at the U.S. Attorney's Office and demand that prosecutors sign or initial this ridiculous document, which has no basis in the law."

"If Raniere has complaints, there are already procedures by which he can air his grievances," Glazer added. "Some he has already utilized, and his gripe is merely that it did not come out his way."

In the coming weeks the five supporters said they intend to take a series of further actions, including the launch of a podcast. Suneel Chakravorty, one of Raniere's supporters, is recording the podcast with him from prison. It will be the first time Raniere is heard from since his arrest.

The group provided CBS News with an exclusive clip, in which Raniere claims: "The prosecution lied to the court. The prosecution tampered with evidence. The prosecution suborned perjury... There's a whole bunch of things that happened that were just horrendous. If my judge comes and sentences me he is condoning all of this behavior."

In addition to the affidavit the group has also offered $35,000 to anyone who can prove Raniere guilty of the crimes he was found guilty of by a jury. They're calling it the "Innocence Challenge." The group plans to lay out its own evidence let the public decide Raniere's guilt based on that.

"The reality is that the Challenge is an opportunity for people to separate hate and gossip and prejudice from actual evidence and actually give people an opportunity to have due process," Elliot said.

Raniere's attorneys, meanwhile, filed a Sentencing Memorandum on Friday. His lawyers argue he "should be granted a new trial now due to the accumulation of prejudicial errors and due process violations." His lawyers said that Raniere not only maintains his innocence, he also stands by ESP, NXIVM and DOS, and all of his projects, curriculum and teachings.

"Simply put, he remains proud of his life's work," his lawyers wrote.

Raniere will be sentenced on October 27 and is facing up to life in prison. Mack, who pleaded guilty to racketeering, is still awaiting a sentencing date. We asked her wife, Nicki Clyne, how she is feeling about it.

"I haven't been able to speak to her for a year and half. Part of the conditions of her bail is that she can't speak to anyone who is affiliated in any way with the case or NXIVM," she said, adding: "This has been the hardest, most humbling experience of my life."

When asked if she could go back, would she still be involved with Raniere and NXIVM, Clyne said: "Yeah. I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything."