Even before a jury has been selected, the first day of Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial for rape saw legal and cultural explosions going off inside and outside a Manhattan courtroom this morning.
After an impassioned argument by Deputy District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, a gag of sorts on Weinstein and his team talking to the media sought by prosecutors was denied by Justice James Burke with a stern warning to “leave the witnesses alone” outside the court.
“Enough harm has been done to many of these witnesses already,” Illuzzi-Orbon said in reference to the allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment by the once-powerful producer and the numerous recent media appearances by lead defense lawyer Donna Rotunno and even interviews given by Weinstein himself.
“To talk about witness in a humiliating and degrading way is not becoming,” Illuzzi-Orbon added with implied reference to remarks made by Rotunno on CNN this weekend about the profession and skills of The Sopranos alum Annabella Sciorra, who is set to give testimony in the case in the coming weeks.
“I don’t believe I did anything improper,” Rotunno said forcefully in her own defense of the accusation that she went “on and on quoting from sealed material on public TV,” as Illuzzi-Orbon termed it. “Mrs. Illuzzi stands in this courtroom and calls my client a predator and then has the nerve to say I cannot discuss the case. … I am doing anything other than representing my client.”
As the proceeding unfolded on the 15th floor of 100 Centre Street with the likes of Gloria Allred in attendance, outside on street level, Weinstein accusers including Rosanna Arquette and Rose McGowan were making their voices heard too. “Time’s up on sexual harassment in all workplaces,” Crash actor Arquette said in the cold and damp NYC morning. “Time’s up on empty apologies without consequences, and time’s up on the pervasive culture of silence that has enabled abusers like Weinstein.”
Life behind bars as a real possibility for the much-accused producer if he is found guilty of multiple counts of predatory sexual assault, one count of criminal sexual act in the first degree and one count each of first-degree rape and third-degree rape. Today’s hearing looks likely to set the tone for a trial that is expected to take two months – and that’s after around two weeks of jury selection set to start the “laborious,” to quote Justice Burke, pre-screening tomorrow is concluded.
Surrounded by an entourage of mainly shaved-headed men and his chief defense lawyer Rotunno, Weinstein hobbled into court on a walker just after 9:10 a.m. ET to sit in the front row. He had been jeered by a crowd outside as he inched his way into the building earlier. That seemed forgotten as at times attorneys chatted and even joked with the producer in the courtroom as they awaited the arrival of Justice Burke and the slightly earlier-than-usual 9:25 a.m. ET start time.
A presence at nearly all his pre-trial hearings since he was arrested in May 2018, Weinstein — like the now-imprisoned sexual predator Bill Cosby — is not expected to testify in his own defense, despite sporadic conversations with the media in recent weeks.
While Justice Burke did not offer an anticipated ruling on whether cameras would be allowed in his Lower Manhattan courtroom and rejected a move to sequester the jury once is it picked, another legal hand grenade of sorts was also thrown out there today.
Among potential witnesses including some Homeland Security officials and alleged victims, former longtime Weinstein lawyer David Boies might be called to court, prosecutors unveiled today.
With clear concern on the part of the defense and fellow Deputy D.A. Meghan Hast by her side, Illuzzi-Orbon made sure to strictly draw perimeters about what the once celebrated high profile attorney would be asked in order to limit the blast radius coming from the well-connected modern-day mandarin. Specifically, if an ex-Black Cube employee is not allowed to testify or their testimony is clipped during the trial, the D.A.’s office wants Boies to offer insight into the hiring of the investigation firm that worked for Weinstein to apparently intimidate and probe potential victims and journalists – a hiring that a now somewhat contrite Boies handled for the deep pocketed Weinstein.
As civil cases, a potential multi-million-dollar settlement and a slew of new probes by the Los Angeles D.A. swirl around Weinstein, Justice Burke drew a line and made clear today that he is “refusing to meet with either side” about matters in other jurisdictions.
With L.A. County D.A. Jackie Lacey looking into eight more Weinstein claims and has a press conference scheduled today in the City of Angels, that was not what the defense wanted to hear.
“We want to see nothing derail this trial,” pleaded co-counsel Arthur Aidala to the judge in the packed courtroom. “He is not looking for a mistrial, he wants to reach a conclusion to this,” the lawyer insisted, “all of his rights have been trampled upon.”
In a strategy primarily focused on undermining the timelines and intent of the two women at the heart of this criminal case and other prior bad acts witnesses, the defense is also distinctly looking at the eventual horizon of appeal if Weinstein is found guilty. One manner in which to fast track such an appeal would be for the defense to assert that the process was flawed or even stacked against them in court proper and the court of public opinion.
“It’s going to be hard enough to get a fair and impartial jury,” Burke conceded of the much covered case and the even more intense media scrutiny as a result of the now commenced trial.
Otherwise, the day kicked off with a pitched discussion over evidence and discovery being handed to the defense by the District Attorney’s office and compliance with a new Empire State law on such matters that affects the case.
Specifically, as has been queried before, at question were the cell phones of the unnamed woman in the case and her unredacted medical records
“Many of them are not relevant to the charges at all,” said Deputy D.A. Illuzzi-Orbon of such requests and records this morning before Justice Burke. “Moreover judge, this is a sensitive issue for a lot of witnesses,” she stated. “That is not something that the People are going to provide wholesale to the predator in this case,” the prosecutor added, gesturing towards Weinstein on the other side of the courtroom.
Turning the onus on the other side, Illuzzi-Orbon asserted that “the defense has not provided a single piece of discovery to us nor have they provided a witness list. … it is what it is.”
Still, as the temperature rose in the courtroom, Illuzzi-Orbon sought to dampen the tension in a clearly high stakes matter. “It is not the practice of the Manhattan D.A.’s office to ever, ever unnecessarily humiliate a defendant,” Illuzzi-Orbon noted, promising that certain personal information of Weinstein’s would be kept out of the public eye and record if necessary.
Weinstein himself sat stone-faced in reaction to the olive branch of sorts.
After a long session of the lawyers from both sides at the bench conferring with Justice Burke over the jury selection to be drawn from a pool of thousands, the first day of the Weinstein trial concluded around 10:40 AM ET.
Not that the work is entirely done for the day. A box of jury questionnaires will be dropped off to the court later Monday with copies made available to the media by Tuesday. It is estimated by sources close to the court that around 2,000 jury summonses were sent out for this high-profile case, in addition to the 200 or so sent out usually.
Which means it could be a very long and interesting next two weeks.