Harvey Weinstein goes on trial two years after assault charges emerged

Hollywood producer's alleged abuses sparked global movement against sexual harassment

Movie producer Harvey Weinstein (C) leaves the Manhattan Supreme Court after his hearing on December 6, 2019, in New York. 
 New York prosecutors on Friday called for Harvey Weinstein's bail to be increased to $5 million, arguing that the disgraced Hollywood mogul -- accused of sex crimes -- had violated the conditions of his release and could try to flee the country. / AFP / Bryan R. Smith
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More than two years and a lifetime ago, Hollywood’s open secrets about Harvey Weinstein finally spilled into public view.

Few then could have predicted all that would follow or where the #MeToo movement would go. Now, for Mr Weinstein, a reckoning is at hand: his criminal trial, on five felony counts, including predatory sexual assault and rape, is scheduled to begin on Monday in state court in Manhattan. Jury selection could last two weeks, the trial six more.

The proceedings will mark an extraordinary moment in the still-unfolding story of harassment and abuse by powerful men and the implications for every corner of society. For some in the movement, simply seeing Mr Weinstein facing a jury, and charges that could send him to prison for life, will be a victory.

“The fact that this has made it this far is remarkable in its own right,” said Tina Tchen, the chief executive of the advocacy group Time’s Up.

Most rape accusations do not make it to court. Much has changed since the New York Times and the New Yorker reported that dozens of women had accused Mr Weinstein of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse, unleashing a torrent of similar claims against others as the MeToo hashtag went viral and developed into an international movement. But the legal challenges remain.

Such cases can be difficult to try because there are often no witnesses. For the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr, prosecuting the former movie producer could be complicated by the fact the charges are based on allegations about long-ago events. The more memories fade, the easier they are to challenge.

Mr Weinstein, 67, is accused of raping one woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and of performing a forcible sex act on another in 2006 in his flat in the city. He pleaded not guilty, maintaining any sexual activity was consensual.

The hurdle of an extended time between an alleged assault and charges being filed is not always insurmountable for prosecutors. After one trial ended in a hung jury, Bill Cosby was convicted in 2018 of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004. At the second trial, prosecutors called five other women as so-called prior bad acts witnesses to testify about how the comedian allegedly assaulted them.

The Weinstein prosecutors will follow a similar strategy, indicating in court filings that they plan for at least four accusers, beyond the two in the indictment, to testify in an attempt to show a pattern of behaviour by the defendant.

One of Mr Weinstein's lawyers, Donna Rotunno, said in an interview with CBS This Morning in September that the many accusations levelled against him, in civil cases and in the media, "don't matter in the context of the criminal case."

Mr Weinstein and the board of his bankrupt film studio, The Weinstein Company, reached a tentative $47 million (Dh173m) settlement last month with dozens of his accusers. Other civil complaints against him remain active.

Eric Bachman, a lawyer in Chevy Chase, Maryland, who has represented employees in discrimination cases for two decades, said the criminal trial will encourage more victims of abuse and harassment by other powerful people to come forward. And even if Mr Weinstein is acquitted, “the fact that these complaints were taken seriously and vetted and pursued will have a very positive impact on encouraging people to speak up”, he said.

The Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund said it receives about 80 requests daily from women asking for help finding legal counsel or advice. In the past two years, hundreds of men, and some women, have lost their jobs or faced professional repercussions after being accused of sexual misbehaviour. Companies have changed outdated policies and 15 US states amended or updated workplace harassment laws. One in five workers is now required to go through sexual harassment training, up from one in 100 before the MeToo movement.

“People’s perceptions about sexual assault and rape of women have evolved,” said Douglas Wigdor, a lawyer who represents a Weinstein accuser who may testify at the trial, and two other women who have made claims against the former producer. “Now people understand that it’s not something that happens just at knife point or at gunpoint, and women don’t necessarily run to the police immediately. There are power dynamics also at play.”

Ms Tchen said this progress would not stop even if Mr Weinstein was not convicted. “I firmly believe the outcome of the trial does not affect momentum, either way, because this was never about just one person,” the chief executive of Time’s Up said.