NEW YORK — After Harvey Weinstein shuffled into the New York State Supreme Court building for the start of his criminal trial on Monday, a crowd gathered outside the courthouse, held signs, and chanted.
So much was expected for a case that, for more than two years, has dominated our culture, changed how we view Hollywood, and revised the way we talk and think about sexual assault in our daily lives.
However, Weinstein is innocent until proven otherwise. And as the former movie producer’s trial begins, jurors, who will be chosen over the next several days, will be asked to block all that noise outside the courthouse and focus on the evidence directly before them.
Even though dozens of women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein, the case in New York is quite narrow and will rest on the allegations of two women.
As reporters gathered outside the courthouse as early as 5 a.m., the only conversation was about what route Weinstein would take to walk from his car to the courtroom. More than three hours later, he emerged from his vehicle, smiling, bent over a walker, and flanked by his lawyers Donna Rotunno and Damon Cheronis. He looked, if possible, even feebler than he did during his last appearance in court, even though he recently told CNN that he had taken up extensive therapy and meditation since then.
The first day of the trial was devoted to sorting out the daily logistics of the courtroom battle: patient and firm, Judge James Burke ruled on pretrial matters such as whether Weinstein’s lawyers would be allowed complete access to the phone belonging to Jane Doe, a yet-unidentified witness who will testify that she was raped by Weinstein in 2005. (Burke decided that they will not.)
Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon took issue with a recent interview in which Rotunno responded to a question about Annabella Sciorra — an actor who alleges she was sexually assaulted by Weinstein in 1993 at her apartment. Rotunno said about Sciorra: “She has spent an entire life acting for a living, and I anticipate that she'll be an excellent witness on the stand.” Rotunno denied that she had discredited the witness in any way. She pointed to the fact that Weinstein was frequently described as a “predator” in the press and in court and that she should be able to defend him in both spaces. Burke denied a motion to bar Rotunno and Weinstein’s other lawyers from speaking to the press but asked them to leave the witnesses out of it.
It was, in some ways, the only allusion to what is going to be the most difficult part of the next few weeks, and why this is a landmark moment in both women’s rights and legal history: The exposés on Weinstein sparked a worldwide movement against sexual abuse, particularly at the workplace. For millions of women for whom this form of violence is a lived reality, there is no question of Weinstein's guilt — the question is if the legal system will catch up with a rapidly evolving culture against abuse. But in court, Weinstein's lawyers will work hard to prove that news stories about their client have unduly damaged his chances for a fair trial. Even selecting fair and impartial jurors, the lawyers will argue, is incredibly difficult given the far-reaching effects of the #MeToo movement. Weinstein has pleaded not guilty and denied the accusations against him.
No matter what happened inside the courtroom, the noise outside was particularly difficult to ignore. Several of Weinstein’s alleged victims — including Rose McGowan, Louise Godbold, Lauren Sivan, and Rosanna Arquette — appeared moments after Weinstein entered the courthouse to address press cameras.
Dressed in red, surrounded by protesters carrying signs that read “Justice for Survivors,” the women were a sharp contrast to the sterile environment inside. McGowan warned Weinstein, whom she described as a “super predator,” that he would meet his fate through “Lady Justice” in the weeks to come: “We are free, we are beautiful, and we are strong,” she said. “You will never take this from us.”