Tense, ferocious and historic: Inside the courtroom at Harvey Weinstein trial

Prosecution delivers blistering opening statement

Clémence Michallon
New York County Supreme Court
Wednesday 22 January 2020 23:11 GMT
Harvey Weinstein limps into court for the first day of his trial in New York

Harvey Weinstein, slow and unsteady, shuffled towards the New York County Supreme Court building in lower Manhattan just before 9am, a nearby aide carrying his now-infamous walker.

Inside, he hobbled down the central aisle of the courtroom, where the claims of his alleged victims came into focus – all discussed in at-times uncomfortable detail in a blistering opening statement delivered by the prosecution.

There was no shortage of people – journalists and members of the public – hoping to witness the first minutes of what is shaping up to be a historic trial. By 5.50am, a significant line had formed outside the court.

This, by the way, is how you get a seat at the Weinstein trial: you get there way, way before sunrise. You stuff hand warmers in your gloves and toe warmers inside your winter boots. You wear – of course – four layers of clothing. It might seem counterintuitive, but you don’t drink coffee, not right away, because there’s no telling when the next bathroom break will come. Around 8am, you go through a metal detector. Inside, you wait in line some more and endure the suspense of fate deciding whether you will snatch one of 100 seats available for the media and members of the public.

The courtroom itself isn’t particularly grandiose – it’s small, for a start – but make no mistake: it’s a land governed by strict rules. Phones are not to be used, and transgressors face the risk of being kicked out for the rest of the day – not a risk you’re willing to take when you waited two hours in below-freezing temperatures hoping to get inside. There’s no tweeting or texting or emailing. Standing is prohibited as long as the court is in session.

Weinstein himself arrived inside the room around 9.15am, preceded by his lawyer Donna Rotunno. A large TV screen displayed the name of the case, PSNY [People of the State of New York] v. Harvey Weinstein, for all to see. Contrary to previous court appearances, Weinstein didn’t use his walking frame – though one member of his entourage brought it inside the courtroom not long afterwards. The former movie mogul appeared close to falling as he entered but caught himself and made his way towards the front of the room, where he sat during the rest of the proceedings.

Judge James Burke, who has presided over the case, began by addressing the jury – seven men, five women and three alternate jurors, who are there in case one member of the main pool needs to drop out at any point during the trial. He reminded them of several cardinal rules, including that of the presumption of innocence. The defence has nothing to prove, Burke said. It’s on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the charges against Weinstein are true. If they fail to do so, the judge highlighted, the jury must find the producer not guilty.

Weinstein is accused of performing a forcible sex act on one woman in 2006 and raping another woman in 2013. He has pleaded not guilty and denied all allegations of non-consensual sex. He has also denied retaliating against women. The former Hollywood mogul could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted on the most serious charges.

Assistant district attorney Meghan Hast, speaking for the prosecution, delivered a no-holds-barred opening statement, describing Weinstein as a manipulative abuser who allegedly tested his victims’ boundaries before assaulting them. She discussed the claims against him in graphic detail, at one point alleging that he had injected medication into his genitals before an assault.

At least once, Hast pointed to Weinstein while describing his alleged pattern of behaviour to the jury, in one instance telling them: “The man seated right there was not just a titan in Hollywood, he was a rapist.” Hast made several mentions of Weinstein’s size and weight, comparing them to his alleged victims’ lighter frames. She described the “famous and powerful Hollywood producer” as once “rubbing elbows with the Clintons” – a statement supported by a photo of Weinstein with former President Bill Clinton.

Throughout Hast’s statement, there was no shortage of objections on the defence’s part. Most of them were overruled, meaning the judge disallowed them, though at least one of them was sustained (validated by the judge). Weinstein lawyer Damon Cheronis later countered by laying out plans to use friendly-sounding emails, calendar entries and other evidence to call into question the accusers’ accounts of being attacked.

The defence team made it clear that they intend to go on the offensive, seeking to discredit those who have accused Weinstein of misconduct and portraying them as willing participants. Weinstein’s counsel has previously argued for a change of venue, alleging that it wouldn’t be possible for the producer to get a fair trial in New York City, but those requests have been denied.

Television cameras remained set up outside of the courtroom long after the court went in session on Wednesday morning. Weinstein’s trial is expected to last for at least a month from here on out. News organisations from around the world will be watching.

Additional reporting by agencies

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