Harvey Weinstein’s attorney, Donna Rotunno, implored a New York jury on Thursday to exonerate the former movie mogul, urging the 12-member panel to find her client not guilty even if that decision is unpopular with the public.
She claimed that the women who alleged that Weinstein raped them were shirking responsibility for their own actions and were embarrassed about having used the movie producer to advance their own careers.
“When you came to [court], you might have had a gut feeling that Harvey Weinstein was guilty,” Rotunno said, adding, “During deliberation, I’m going to ask you to use your New York City common sense… and every time you feel your emotion taking over, remember that common sense, because it will guide you.”
Weinstein was one of the most powerful figures in the entertainment industry, backing Oscar winners and commercial hits such as “Shakespeare in Love” and “Pulp Fiction.” Prosecutors claim that he used his position to prey on women, promising them access to roles and perks while forcing them to engage in sex acts. Weinstein is grappling with five criminal charges, including rape and predatory sexual assault. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Rotunno addressed a packed and hushed courtroom in downtown Manhattan, where throngs of media had assembled in the early morning hours to get seats. Dozens of members of the public were denied entrance, but huddled just outside the court room, eager to find out what was going on behind closed doors. As her client looked on with rapt attention, she argued that prosecutors had failed to prove their case, despite the fact that Weinstein has become synonymous with a kind of predatory behavior given the media firestorm that greeted the accusations against the producer.
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“Here, in New York City, in the United States of America, we don’t cave to the pressure,” said Rotunno, adding, “You should never feel bullied or pressured to change your decision… stand your ground… Historically, you are the last line of defense in this country, from the overzealous media, from the overzealous prosecutors, you are the one here being asked to make [the decision].”
The prosecution called six women to testify about their alleged assaults. The case, however, rests largely on the allegations of two of them: aspiring actress-turned-hairdresser Jessica Mann, and former “Project Runway” production assistant Miriam Haley. Mann alleges that she was trapped in a predatory relationship with Weinstein, and accuses him of raping her at a DoubleTree Hotel in Manhattan in March 2013. Haley has accused Weinstein of forcibly performing oral sex on her at his apartment in Soho in 2006.
Weinstein’s attorneys have countered that any sexual encounters were consensual and used warm correspondence between the women and the former media mogul to bolster their case that they remained on friendly terms after the alleged attacks.
“You don’t have to like Mr. Weinstein,” Rotunno said. “This is not a popularity contest… in this country, it’s the unpopular people that need the jury… the unpopular person needs you the most.”
The trial in Manhattan Supreme Court has captivated much of the country and Hollywood, and is seen as a key test for the #MeToo movement. In 2017, dozens of women came forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual abuse and harassment, triggering the collapse of his business, The Weinstein Company, and an industry-wide reckoning in which other high profile figures such as Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Les Moonves, and Bryan Singer were accused of misbehavior.
Rotunno returned to a theme that she has struck in interviews ahead of the trial, suggesting that the #MeToo movement had gone too far and had enabled women and men to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. She suggested that prosecutors were arguing that Mann and Haley lacked “autonomy” or “common sense.”
“In their universe, women are not responsible for the parties they attend, the men they flirt with, the hotel room invitations, the plane tickets they expect, the jobs they hope to obtain,” said Rotunno. “In this universe, they aren’t even responsible for sitting at their computers and emailing someone across the country.”
“In this script, the powerful man is the villain and he is so unattractive and large that no woman would want to sleep with him,” she added.
Shortly before Rotunno began her remarks, Justice James Burke asked Weinstein if he was certain about his decision not to testify in his own defense, noting that the movie producer had told media he had wanted to share his side of the story.
“Yes, your honor,” Weinstein said.
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