The lawyer representing Harvey Weinstein at his New York rape trial made a final appeal to the jury on Thursday to acquit him of all five counts of sexual offences, pleading with them to act as the last defense against “overzealous prosecutors” and resist the temptation to “criminalize morality”.
Donna Rotunno did not mention the #MeToo movement by name, but her five-hour closing arguments at the New York supreme court frequently alluded to the social reckoning over sexual violence and abuse galvanized by Weinstein’s numerous accusers.
Rotunno exhorted jurors to leave thoughts about the “swinging pendulum” of power outside the courtroom, and focus on the individual charges before them.
“Have the courage to make the right decision, no matter how unpopular you might be when you get back to work or your home,” she said. By doing so, “you can show the world that here in New York, here in the United States, we will not allow outside forces to dictate”.
At times, Rotunno’s speech sounded more like a rebuttal of #MeToo than it did of the specific counts of rape and sexual assault against her client. She told the jury that prosecutors had created an “alternative universe”, ironically like a movie script, in which “women are not responsible for the parties they attend, the men they flirt with, the choices they make to further their own careers, the hotel room invitations and the plane tickets they accept”.
She went on: “In this script, the powerful man is the villain, and he’s so powerful and large that no woman would want to sleep with him.”
Weinstein, 67, faces up to possible life in prison on two counts of rape dating from 2013, one count that he forced oral sex on a then Project Runway producer, Miriam Haley, in 2006, and two of predatory sexual assault relating to sex crimes against multiple women. The jury of seven men and five women is expected to begin deliberating on its verdict on Tuesday.
As he left court for the day, the movie mogul was asked by reporters what he thought of Rotunno’s final statement. “I loved it. I called it the Queen’s speech,” he replied, in a nod to one of his most successful movies, The King’s Speech.
In her closing arguments, Rotunno accused New York prosecutors of kowtowing to public pressure around #MeToo and forcing a criminal case in which the rules of evidence were disregarded. She complained especially bitterly that her client had been cast as an overweight monster whose naked photos were shown to the jury just “to shame him”.
Rotunno’s summing up will be followed on Friday with closing arguments for the prosecution. Then the jury will be presented with a very different characterisation of the once-powerful titan of Hollywood as a brutal serial sex offender.
Most of Rotunno’s speech was devoted to discrediting the two key accusers in the case – Haley and the alleged rape victim. The latter is an aspiring actor who the Guardian has not named because of lack of clarity over her desire to be identified.
The alleged rape victim was depicted in defense closing arguments as a duplicitous individual who maintained a consensual relationship with the movie mogul over many years but repeatedly lied about it, only deciding to come out with her accusations of violent assault after he had been exposed by the press in 2017 and she could see an opportunity to make money.
Rotunno read out an email from February 2018 in which the woman talked about wanting to “pursue damages civilly” against Weinstein, remarking that she did not have “much time” if she were to bring a case in New York given the statute of limitations. In total, four of the six accusers who testified against Weinstein had taken on civil lawyers, implying they wanted to sue him once the trial was over, she said.
The unnamed accuser told the court earlier this month that she had twice been raped by the film producer, once in a hotel room in the Doubletree Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in March 2013 and again in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills the following year. Over nine hours of cross-examination over two days, Rotunno was so aggressive in her investigation that she reduced the woman to a panic attack involving uncontrollable sobbing.
Rotunno walked the jury through a long series of communications between the accuser and her alleged assailant beginning in 2013 and ending in 2018. “Miss you big guy,” the witness wrote six months after the first alleged rape; “thank you for your unfailing support and kindness that helped me believe in myself,” she said to him two months later.
“Not words you say to your rapist,” Rotunno told the jury.
The defense summary underlined the uphill job facing the prosecution in its attempt to secure a guilty verdict on all five counts. It is exceptionally rare for US prosecutors to go ahead at trial in cases where female accusers have maintained close and at times sexual relations with their alleged attackers years after incidents.
Rotunno deployed the same tactics of character assassination against Haley, who alleges that Weinstein forced oral sex on her at his New York apartment in July 2006. The attorney suggested that the witness was “lying about the nature of the interaction” which was entirely consensual.
Rotunno dedicated the remainder of her summary to a similar take-down of the testimony of the four other women who provided supporting evidence, though their allegations are not directly being prosecuted. They are the Sopranos actor Annabella Sciorra who alleges she was raped by the defendant in her Manhattan apartment in 1993-4; Dawn Dunning who recounted that he propositioned her for a threesome in 2004; Tarale Wulff who alleged she was raped in his apartment in 2005; and Lauren Young who claimed he groped her in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom in 2013.
As she wound up, the lawyer appealed to the jury to distinguish between sex addiction – an affliction that one of Weinstein’s friends told the court he suffered from – and rape.
“Tiger Woods is a sex addict, you don’t see him in a courtroom. Being a sex addict and being a rapist are two different things,” she said.
In the US, Rainn offers support at 800-656-4673 or by chat at Rainn.org. In the UK, the rape crisis national freephone helpline is at 0808-802-9999. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800-737-7328) or 1800respect.org.au. Other international helplines can be found at Ibiblio.org.