In #MeToo landmark moment, high-stakes Weinstein rape trial starts in New York

by Reuters
Monday, 6 January 2020 18:37 GMT

Film producer Harvey Weinstein leaves New York Supreme Court after his arraignment in his sexual assault case in New York, U. S., August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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The film mogul is accused of assaulting two women in New York, and could face life in jail if found guilty of the most serious charge

By Brendan Pierson and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Harvey Weinstein's landmark rape trial began on Monday with the once powerful film producer hobbling into a Manhattan court while celebrity accusers who fueled the #MeToo movement demanded justice and an end to workplace sexual harassment.

Inside the state court, Judge James Burke ordered Weinstein's lawyer Donna Rotunno to refrain from talking about witnesses, after she was accused of making degrading and humiliating comments in recent interviews, which she denied.

Weinstein, 67, has pleaded not guilty to charges of assaulting two women in New York. He faces life in prison if convicted on the most serious charge, predatory sexual assault.

Weinstein, dressed in a black suit, walked slowly into and out of court, leaning on a walker and with a member of his team holding his arm.

Outside the courthouse, the Silence Breakers, a group of Weinstein accusers including actresses Rosanna Arquette and Rose McGowan, held a news conference and demanded accountability for Weinstein.

"As we stand here at the beginning of a new year and a new decade, time's up on sexual harassment in all workplaces," said Arquette. "And time's up on the pervasive culture of silence that has enabled abusers like Weinstein."

#TimesUp is the name of a movement resulting from many of the same forces that created #MeToo. It works against sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender-based discrimination.

Weinstein did not engage with the accusers who shouted at him outside court. McGowan, who has accused him of raping her, was dismissive of Weinstein's feeble appearance. "I think he's taken some good acting tips.

"You brought this upon yourself by hurting so many, you have only yourself to blame," she said.

More than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct dating back decades.

Those accusations helped fuel the #MeToo movement, in which hundreds of women have publicly accused powerful men in business, politics, the news media and entertainment of sexual harassment or assault.

Weinstein has denied the allegations, saying any sexual encounters he had were consensual.

Weinstein was in the courthouse for less than two hours as the legal teams resolved last-minute procedures before jury selection begins on Tuesday.

Outside the courthouse, Rotunno accused lead prosecutor Joan Illuzzi of attempting to silence Weinstein's defense team.

"I think she believes he's convicted already," Rotunno told reporters. "That's not how this works."

Judge Burke on Monday rebuffed a bid by the defense to sequester the jury during a trial that could last several weeks.

On Tuesday, lawyers will start pre-screening jurors, asking them whether they can be impartial and to fill out written questionnaires. A second phase of jury selection is scheduled to begin on Jan. 14, though the judge overseeing the case said that date was "optimistic."

The court sent jury questionnaires to 2,000 potential jurors, according to a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration.

Finding impartial New York City jurors amid the media frenzy surrounding the Weinstein case will be a challenge for both legal teams, experts said.

Lawyers will likely question potential jurors about their knowledge and opinion of the case, their work history and whether they have been victims of sexual misconduct.

One of the women Weinstein was charged with assaulting, former production assistant Mimi Haleyi, has said that Weinstein sexually assaulted her in 2006. Prosecutors say Weinstein raped the second woman, who has not been publicly identified, in 2013.

Juda Engelmayer, a Weinstein spokesman, said on Thursday that the two women in the criminal case had long-term relationships with Weinstein. He said it was prejudicial to conflate the criminal matter with allegations in civil cases or with public grievances he said were lodged by women who were not part of any lawsuit.

Allegations against Weinstein first were reported in the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine in October 2017.

Within days, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which selects Oscar winners, had expelled Weinstein. On Oct. 15, Alyssa Milano tweeted: "If you've ever been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet."

#MeToo became one of the most used widely used hashtags. In 2019 it was viewed 42 billion times, according to data from Brandwatch, a research firm.

If Weinstein is acquitted, he is still likely to face legal problems. At least 29 women in the United States, Canada and Europe have brought civil claims against him. He has denied the allegations.

The parties have been trying to work out a $25 million settlement to resolve most of the civil cases. The deal would not require Weinstein to contribute personally or to admit wrongdoing, prompting at least one woman to reject the proposal.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Brendan Pierson, Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter in New York and Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles; Writing by Tom Hals; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

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