Harvey Weinstein went on trial Wednesday in a landmark moment for the #MeToo movement, with prosecutors painting him as a sexual predator who used his movie-magnate stature to abuse women for decades, while his lawyers sought to discredit his accusers and portray them as willing participants.
Prosecutor Meghan Hast told the jury of seven men and five women that the former studio boss was “not just a titan in Hollywood — he was a rapist” who screamed at one victim that she “owed” him sex, used injections to induce an erection before an assault and pushed his way into the apartment of another woman and assaulted her.
“It is for his complete lack of empathy that he must be held accountable,” Hast said.
Weinstein lawyer Damon Cheronis countered by laying out plans to use friendly-sounding emails, calendar entries and other evidence to call the accusers’ accounts of being attacked into question.
The opening of the rape trial more than two years after a barrage of allegations against Weinstein gave rise to #MeToo was seen by activists as a milestone in the global reckoning over sexual misconduct by powerful men. Weinstein’s lawyers, though, have portrayed the case as the result of a climate of accusation run amok.
Weinstein, 67, said little as he arrived at a Manhattan court Wednesday. Asked whether he believed he would have a fair trial, he said yes: “I have good lawyers.”
Guided by aides and lawyers, he wasn’t using the walker he’s leaned on lately after a summer car crash and subsequent back surgery. He said he was feeling better.
Weinstein has insisted any sexual encounters were consensual. He could get life in prison if convicted.
The once-powerful and feared executive brought to the screen such Oscar-winning movies as Pulp Fiction, The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago, and hobnobbed with the elite in Hollywood and beyond, a point prosecutors made by showing jurors a photo of Weinstein with former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
A prosecutor also told the judge that Weinstein had taken calls from Clinton while Weinstein was with one of his accusers.
Weinstein’s lawyers later cited the photo in asking for a mistrial, accusing prosecutors of improperly trying to influence the jury. Judge James Burke denied the request.
The prosecution called former board member of The Weinstein Co., Lance Maerov, as its first witness. Maerov described the ex-producer as “an extremely influential, powerful person” who could be charming in public and aggressive in private.
“I would say his public personality was diametrically opposed to who he was in private,” Maerov said. The movie company went bankrupt after Weinstein’s fall.
At the end of the day’s session, Weinstein left the courthouse with the use of his walker. Asked how the day went, he said, “Good.”
‘Weinstein was undeterred,’ says prosecutor
Scores of women have accused Weinstein of sexually harassing or assaulting them over the years. But the New York charges centre on two allegations: that he forcibly performed oral sex on former Project Runway production assistant Mimi Haleyi in his apartment in 2006 and raped an aspiring actress in a New York City hotel room in 2013.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they have been victims of sexual assault, unless they come forward publicly.
The rape accuser found a needle in the hotel room bathroom after the alleged assault and realized Weinstein had injected himself to get an erection, Hast said.
Another time, after the woman told him she had a new boyfriend, Weinstein dragged her into a bedroom, “all the while screaming at her that he owed her one more time,” Hast said. “He ripped her jeans off so forcefully that it left scratch marks.”
The prosecutor said Weinstein later told the woman, “I just want to apologize for what happened earlier. I just find you so attractive, I couldn’t resist you.”
In addition to the two women he is charged with attacking, prosecutors plan to call to the stand four other accusers — including actress Annabella Sciorra — in a bid to portray Weinstein as a monster who lured women with offers of career help, then forced himself on them.
“They will each describe their fear, their shame and their humiliation — the struggle each went through to push their trauma down and show a brave face to the world,” Hast said.
Hast detailed allegations that Weinstein sexually assaulted Sciorra around 1993 after giving the Sopranos actress a ride home to her Manhattan apartment and forcing his way inside.
“She told him to get out. She told him no. But Harvey Weinstein was undeterred,” Hast said.
‘Not a relationship based on fear,’ defence says
Weinstein’s lawyers made it clear they plan to go on the offensive.
Cheronis said the 2013 rape accuser sent Weinstein a request that year asking for “time privately” with him and another message letting him know, “I got a new number. I just wanted you to have it. Always good to hear your voice.”
“These aren’t our words. They’re hers. It is not a relationship based on fear, you are going to see that,” Cherinos said.
Weinstein’s trial could take more than a month, Burke said. Judging from an arduous two-week jury selection that netted the panel of seven men and five women, it could be a hotbed of protests and intense media coverage.
In a failed last-minute push to get the trial moved, Weinstein’s lawyers said a flash mob’s chanting “the rapist is you!” at street level could be heard in the courtroom, 15 floors above.
Adding to the drama, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. was in the same courthouse Wednesday morning for a hearing for a case in which several women have accused him of groping. An April 21 trial date was set for the Oscar winner, who has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
Once the New York trial is over, Weinstein faces additional rape and sexual assault charges in Los Angeles. Those charges were filed this month as jury selection in his New York trial was getting underway.