Opening statements aren’t slated to begin until January 22nd, but the criminal trial pitting the People of the State of New York against Harvey Weinstein has already witnessed its share of headline-grabbing moments.
In just the first week of trial activities, Weinstein — facing five sex-crime charges that could land the 67-year-old in prison for the rest of his life — has shown up at the courthouse with a walker and has been admonished by the judge for using a cellphone in court. Plus, a Los Angeles-set sequel is already in the works.
Weinstein’s Walker: Physical Need or Sympathy Decoy?
Weinstein, who for decades was a barrel-chested and somewhat intimidating presence at red carpets and award shows, showed up for pre-trial activities in December looking feeble, gaunt and, most surprisingly, relying on a walker. Not a cane, but a retirement home-ready, four-legged walker complete with two tennis balls fastened to the bottoms of the back legs.
The moment Weinstein showed up at court with the apparatus, the question was sparked: Does Weinstein really need this thing, or is this Defense Lawyer 101 tactics to cull sympathy for the now-notorious producer? After analysis from everyone from The Atlantic to the tabloids, the answer is likely: Probably a little bit of both.
Weinstein was reportedly involved in a car accident in August and underwent some sort of spinal surgery after that. Weinstein’s walker first appeared in photographs of the producer in October, and then at some December pre-trial hearings; however, when Weinstein visited a Target that same month, he was photographed shopping walker-free.
The consensus opinion is that it’s normal for Weinstein to have the walker, even if he doesn’t necessarily need the walker — especially so long after his accident — but the weight of a sex crimes trial that could send him away for his remaining years probably isn’t doing his back any favors.
Judge Threatens to Throw Weinstein in Jail After He Uses One of His Four Cellphones in Court
Proceedings went briefly haywire on Day Two of jury selection as Weinstein’s legal team demanded that Judge James Burke recuse himself from the case, issuing a seven-page letter pinpointing Burke’s “unfair treatment” in just these opening days of the trial. At the heart of the matter: Burke’s public admonishment of Weinstein after the former movie mogul texted from one of his four cellphones while seated in court.
At an earlier hearing, the judge warned Weinstein’s legal team that cellphone use while court was in session could result in the alteration of their client’s bail conditions; Weinstein currently remains free on $5 million bail. His previous warning ignored, Burke scolded Weinstein in court, “Is this really the way you want to end up in jail for the rest of your life, by texting and violating a court order?”
While Weinstein’s lawyers considered Burke’s chiding “inflammatory” and evidence of bias, the judge refused to recuse himself Thursday. “I certainly never meant that I was going to put your client in jail for life, nor did I mean that I had pre-judged whether he is guilty or not guilty or innocent of the charges,” Burke wrote in response. “All I meant to do was scare him enough for him to discontinue using his phone,” which, as of Friday, he has.
(Weinstein’s lawyer Arthur Aidala later revealed that all that cellphone activity was a direct result of the just-announced Los Angeles sex charges against the producer.)
Jury Selection Has Presented Issues, and Some Telling Conflicts
One of the biggest challenges in a trial of this magnitude and media interest is finding a big enough jury pool of people that have somehow unplugged their brains during the #MeToo era and share an impartial opinion of the producer and his many alleged sex crimes.
“Oh, shit!” one perspective juror exclaimed aloud during Day Three of jury selection upon learning she was being interviewed to serve on the Weinstein trial.
Approximately 240 perspective jurors were gathered for the estimated eight-week-long trial; as of Friday morning, 93 of those were dismissed. As the New York Times reported, those excused include someone who knew Weinstein’s ex-wife and a pair of people who admitted to reading Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill. Another woman was dismissed after revealing to the court that she had a friend who allegedly had “an encounter” with Weinstein.
The remaining perspective jurors were given weekend homework — questionnaires about themselves — before the jury selection process continues next week, with the court hoping to have the 12 jurors and six alternates empaneled by week’s end.
As Page Six noted, the “Oh, shit!” woman remains part of the jury pool.
Donna Rotunno, Weinstein’s Lead Defense Attorney, May Become a Household Name
Weinstein’s legal team of highly paid lawyers welcomed a new cast member this week, as Donna Rotunno made her public debut. A Chicago defense attorney and critic of the #MeToo movement who joined Weinstein’s legal team in June, it will be Rotunno who cross-examines the female witnesses accusing the producer of rape and predatory sexual behavior.
“In a case where multiple women will be taking the stand to testify, it’s a different dynamic when you have a female involved in the defense,” Rotunno told Reuters.
A former prosecutor, Rotunno has reportedly represented over 40 defendants accused of sexual assault since she opened her own law practice 15 years ago. “I knew that being a woman at this sort of crossroads in history with MeToo and Times Up, I knew that my role in it would be different than that of a male lawyer,” Rotunno told Reuters. “People say well wait, you’re going against your gender or how dare you. But to me, there’s something bigger than our gender and that’s our rights.”
However, Rotunno has already been accused by assistant district attorney Joan Illuzzi of “degrading and humiliating” actress Annabella Sciorra, one of the prosecution’s witnesses, during a CNN interview, saying Sciorra “has spent an entire life acting for a living… I think the circumstances and the facts and the evidence in the case will show to the jury that her statements don’t rise to the level of what the prosecutor is asking the jury to convict Harvey Weinstein of.”
In interviews, Rotunno has also laid out the crux of the Weinstein defense: “If you don’t want to be a victim, don’t go to the hotel room.” The primary accusers in the New York case, production assistant Mimi Haleyi and a still-anonymous woman, were allegedly sexually assaulted at Weinstein’s Manhattan home and his Manhattan hotel room, respectively.
The People v. Harvey Weinstein, Los Angeles Edition
Weinstein’s legal troubles are about to go bicoastal as, on the precipice of his New York trial, prosecutors in Los Angeles announced Monday that the producer has been charged with four felony counts of rape and sexual assault.
The charges stem from a pair of anonymous accusers who claim that Weinstein sexually assaulted them in separate incidents spread over two days in 2013. When arraigned, Weinstein will face felony counts of forcible rape, forcible oral copulation, sexual penetration by use of force and sexual battery by restraint; if convicted of the Los Angeles charges, Weinstein could be sentenced to 28 years in prison.
“We believe the evidence will show that the defendant used his power and influence to gain access to his victims and then commit violent crimes against them,” Los Angeles district attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement.