Legal questions loom as Harvey Weinstein case nears trial

Posted at 4:50 PM, Aug 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-25 16:50:51-04

NEW YORK (AP) — Can someone as notorious in the #MeToo era as Harvey Weinstein get a fair trial in the world's media capital?

That's one of the legal questions looming over the sexual assault case against the movie mogul with jury selection scheduled for early next month.

Weinstein's lawyers want the trial moved from New York City to Long Island or upstate New York — part of the last-minute wrangling that includes efforts by prosecutors to bolster their case with testimony from actress Annabella Sciorra, who says Weinstein raped her in the 1990s. Weinstein has denied all accusations of non-consensual sex.

The maneuvers have the potential to cause further delays in an already fitful prosecution.

Some of the uncertainty could be cleared up Monday, when Weinstein is due to be arraigned on a new indictment, and an appeals court is expected to rule on a defense motion for a change of venue that prosecutors oppose.

Such motions are rarely granted. But defense lawyers argue the court should make an exception in Weinstein's case, given a "circus-like atmosphere" and "hysteria" fueled by news reports and social media posts. In court papers, they noted that their client's name was mentioned online on the New York Post's gossip column Page Six more than 11,000 times.

"It is safe to say that New York City is the least likely place on earth where Mr. Weinstein could receive a fair trial, where jurors could hear evidence, deliberate and render a verdict in an atmosphere free of intimidation from pressure to deliver a result that the politicians, the activists, the celebrities and the media demand," the lawyers wrote in court papers.

But "the publicity will be suffocating" wherever the case is tried, said Jeffrey Lichtman, a high-profile New York City attorney who is not part of the case.

Lichtman, who represented Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, called the change-of-venue bid misguided because Weinstein, he said, would probably fare better with a jury composed of more "open-minded" Manhattan residents who "might be more sympathetic to the defense that these accusers slept with Harvey with the hope of getting a movie role."

Weinstein, 67, is charged with raping a woman in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006 — both of which he denies.

He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted on all counts. He is free on $1 million bail.

The new indictment against Weinstein hasn't been made public. But in court papers, prosecutors said it was needed to bring evidence involving Sciorra, best known for her work on "The Sopranos." She claims Weinstein raped her inside her Manhattan apartment after she starred in a film for his movie studio in 1993.

Prosecutors can't charge Weinstein with the alleged attack because the accusation dates to 13 years before New York eliminated its statute of limitations for rape cases in 2006. But in court papers filed this month, prosecutors told the judge the indictment will give them a legal foundation to call the actress as a witness to strengthen the predatory sexual assault charge against Weinstein. That requires evidence of a history of past sex crimes against women.

Court papers filed by the defense called the attempt to make Sciorra a prosecution witness an "11th-hour maneuver" that "raises significant legal issues" that could delay the trial by several weeks.

The actress is among the dozens of women who have leveled accusations against Weinstein in accounts published by The New York Times, The New Yorker and other outlets.

The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Sciorra went public with her story in a story in The New Yorker in October 2017.

She told the magazine she didn't report the assault at the time because, even though she tried to fight off Weinstein, she believed she was to blame. Prosecutors said she didn't speak with them until after Weinstein's arrest in May 2018.

"Like most of these women, I was so ashamed of what happened," she said. "I felt disgusting."