Harvey Weinstein’s long-anticipated criminal trial begins this week in New York City
By Chris Francescani , Aaron Katersky and Josh Margolin
Harvey Weinstein’s rape and sexual assault trial, which begins Monday in New York City, has already seen more backstage drama, intrigue, infighting and cast changes than the Hollywood legal thriller that it could very well become one day.
It’s been more than two years since bombshell reports from the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine triggered an avalanche of sex assault accusations against the once-indomitable Hollywood producer that reduced him to a pariah and turned the #MeToo hashtag into a movement that forced a reckoning among powerful men across a spectrum of American industries.
Following multiple indictments, a changing series of criminal charges and complaining witnesses, three sets of defense attorneys, a lead detective thrown off the case, and midstream changes to the prosecution’s team, the all-important jury selection process begins this week.
A total of six women are expected to testify at trial that Weinstein sexually assaulted them, but he is only charged with attacking two. Three more are expected to serve as “prior bad acts” witnesses — and another will testify in support of the state’s claim that Weinstein is a sexual predator. He is facing five felony charges, and if convicted on all counts he could go to prison for life.
Weinstein heads to trial nearly five years after detectives from the Special Victims’ Division of the New York Police Department (NYPD) first began investigating him.
In spring 2015, Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez reported to NYPD detectives that Weinstein had groped her breasts during a business meeting at his office in Manhattan earlier that day. It was the first known public allegation against Weinstein.
Investigators convinced her to accept an invitation to return to meet Weinstein for a dinner meeting the following night at the Tribeca Grand Hotel wearing a wire. Despite Gutierrez allegedly capturing Weinstein on undercover audio recording appearing to admit to the alleged assault, prosecutors from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office declined to charge Weinstein — blaming police investigators for failing to get prior approval for the undercover wire, and asserting that the subsequent audio was “insufficient to prove a crime under New York law.”
Then, in early October 2017, reports in the New York Times and the New Yorker threw a spotlight on Weinstein by documenting his longstanding use of non-disclosure agreements and aggressive, behind-the-scenes public relation campaigns to keep his alleged predatory behavior under wraps for decades.
Within days of the initial, Oct. 5 New York Times report, Weinstein was fired by his own company and described publicly by his brother and business partner Bob Weinstein as a “very sick man.”
Before the month was out, his wife would leave him, A-listers who starred in his films would publicly rebuke him and accuse him of assault and misconduct, and more than three dozen women would step forward to accuse him of some form of sexual assault as well.
Before the year was out, more than 80 women would come forward to detail a spectrum of alleged sexual aggression by Weinstein, ranging from sexual harassment to forcible rape, and he would face a federal lawsuit from six women which alleged that his attempts to conceal and cover up accusations of sexual assault were tantamount to racketeering.
Weinstein ultimately reached a tentative global settlement in a number of civil cases last month for $47 million, a source briefed on the deal confirmed to ABC News. After attorneys’ fees, roughly $31 million will be split among more than 30 of his accusers. According to the source, Weinstein’s insurance company will pay out the settlement money, and the producer will not be required to admit any wrongdoing.
Weinstein has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him and denied ever engaging in non-consensual sex with anyone.
Uphill battle for Weinstein
Weinstein stands charged with raping one woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman, who has since identified herself as former Weinstein production assistant Mimi Haleyi, in 2006.
In addition to the testimony of those two women, three more women are expected to testify to similar alleged sexual assaults by Weinstein for which he has not been charged, as prosecutors seek to show a pattern of predatory behavior.
At a closed hearing earlier this year, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge James Burke allowed the introduction of three “prior bad acts” witnesses – women who claim Weinstein sexually assaulted them but whose accusations fall outside the statute of limitations for prosecution, according to court documents that reference the decision.
The use of such witnesses has proven significant in previous high-profile criminal trials, especially Bill Cosby’s trial last year on charges that he drugged and sexually assaulted Temple University basketball coach Andrea Constand.
Legal experts said the decision on whether or not to allow prior bad acts witnesses to testify in a sex assault trial can be fraught with peril. The judge ultimately must weigh the value to the jury of hearing additional evidence from other accusers with very similar accounts of being assaulted, versus the potential prejudicial cumulative effect such witnesses could have on the defendant.
A sixth woman, “Sopranos” actress Annabella Sciorra, is expected to testify that Weinstein raped her in her Manhattan apartment in the winter of 1993-94. Predatory sexual assault requires that prosecutors prove to a jury that Weinstein seriously sexually assaulted at least two women.