Weinstein judge refuses to delay New York trial after lawyers say Los Angeles case will taint jury pool
A Manhattan judge overseeing Harvey Weinstein's criminal sexual assault trial refused to delay the case in light of what the defense says is a prejudicial news cycle due to new charges against the entertainment mogul that were filed Monday in Los Angeles.
Justice James Burke said the new charges brought against Weinstein were "next to meaningless" as it pertained to the New York case, and he refused to issue a delay in jury selection given the defense's reasoning that headlines would be less in the forefront of public discourse at a future date.
Burke said jurors would be vetted and that the celebrity film producer is "presumed innocent" regardless of any past or current publicity. The jury finalists will swear under oath that they can be fair - able to put aside any knowledge of criminal charges, lawsuits and other allegations.
The decision came as lawyers for Weinstein suggested there was a "coordinated" effort against their client - that it was no coincidence charges were filed on the West Coast, following a lengthy investigation, on the day Weinstein first reported to court for his New York trial to begin.
"For a prosecutor, this is Christmas morning," Weinstein attorney Arthur Aidala said in court Tuesday, referring the news of the past day. "How much better (for the prosecution) can it get that on the morning of jury selection to have him smeared everywhere?"
Aidala, calling the development "the talk of the town," held up copies of three New York newspapers from Tuesday - each with Weinstein on its front page.
Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the charges on Monday, just hours after the conclusion of a conference in Manhattan at the beginning of Weinstein's high-profile trial.
"My understanding of the California case law is there is no explanation legally . . . for those charges to be filed the week we're trying to pick a fair and impartial jury," Aidala said. "I cannot think of one time, one case, where the day of jury selection this type of prejudice is being cast against a criminal defendant."
The bid for an adjournment did not win over Burke, who had threatened to throw Weinstein in jail as a first order of business in the hearing because he used a pair of cellphones in the courtroom after prior strict warnings.
"Is this really the way you want to end up in jail for the rest of your life - by texting in violation of a court order?" said Burke, clearly annoyed.
Before the case was called, Weinstein was seen sitting in the first row with handlers, fussing with phones before handing them over. Burke said he was "texting and violating a court order," and hounded Aidala about Weinstein's misbehavior during a several-minute exchange about the phone drama.
Weinstein escaped with yet another, more intense warning. He returned to court in the afternoon with a hardcover copy of "The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics." The judge had suggested he bring a book to keep him occupied from now on.
Weinstein, 67, first entered the courtroom Tuesday, hunched over as he gripped a walker.
Based solely on his courtroom appearance, Weinstein's health has deteriorated since scores of sexual assault and sexual harassment accusations were lodged against him, allegations that kick-started the #MeToo movement in late 2017. However, photographs of him that have been snapped in public recently suggest that he's not as infirm as he appears in court. He was hospitalized for a back surgery a few weeks before his trial was set to begin.
Pre-screening of jurors began late Tuesday morning with the vetting of the first batch of 500 jury prospects. To begin, 120 potential jurors filed into the 15th-floor courtroom at the 100 Centre St. courthouse for an initial round of eliminations.
More than 40 people - addressed one-by-one - said they could not be "fair and impartial" to Weinstein if selected, but they were not asked to elaborate. The group was nearly equally split by gender. At the outset, Burke told the panel that knowledge of Weinstein - a household name worldwide - is not an automatic disqualifier.
"I must tell you that having heard of Harvey Weinstein or even being familiar with allegations made against him in the press or elsewhere are not by themselves disqualifying and does not mean you are not permitted to sit as a juror in this case," he said.
Selected jurors "will be deciding . . . based on what they hear inside the courtroom regardless of what the press or anybody else has said about the case outside the courtroom."
Burke began the session by telling the group the name of the case they were being considered for: "The People of the State of New York v. Harvey Weinstein." The announcement was met by subdued reactions from the men and women of all ages in the crowd. A few exchanged glances but there were no audible gasps or comments.
"I noted there was not too much reaction when the defendant's name was read," Burke said as he advised the group about the process.
By the end of the session, 36 people from the original set filled out questionnaires and were advanced to the next round. They were asked to come back on Jan. 16 for the start of voir dire.
Burke also read a lengthy list of names - some who are scheduled to be witnesses and others who simply may come up at the trial. Among those names were actresses Salma Hayek, Charlize Theron and Rosie Perez. Perez is reportedly a friend of "Sopranos" star Annabella Sciorra, who is expected to be one of the prosecution's key witnesses.
Other jurors were excused for "hardship" issues - and Burke said many of those he let go were college students soon to begin the next semester. Typically, jurors are excused for valid time conflicts, health issues or child-care obligations. Jurors who will not be paid by their employers during the lengthy proceeding are also usually released.
The trial is expected to span two months, into early March.
Weinstein is on trial for rape, criminal sex acts and predatory sexual assault involving three alleged victims, for which he faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life.
He's charged with forcing a sex act upon former production assistant Mimi Haleyi in 2006 and allegedly raping another woman - who has not been identified - at a Doubletree Hotel in 2013.
His most serious charge in New York covers a pattern of offenses including Sciorra's 1993 alleged rape in her former Gramercy apartment. Sciorra, who was also on the judge's list, will be called as a witness.
Weinstein faces up to 28 years in California if convicted in connection to two alleged assaults in February 2013. He is charged with four felonies: forcible oral copulation, sexual penetration by use of force, rape and sexual battery by restraint.
Los Angeles authorities are asking for $5 million bail but they will not seek his extradition or surrender until the conclusion of his New York trial, officials said.
This article was written by Shayna Jacobs, a reporter for The Washington Post.