Paul Haggis's defence examine accuser's emails at rape trial

Publicist Haleigh Breest says filmmaker forced himself on her after pressing her to come up to his apartment

Screenwriter and director Paul Haggis arrives at court for a sexual assault civil lawsuit in New York. AP
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Filmmaker Paul Haggis’s defence team sought to undermine the credibility of a publicist who accused him of rape, with his lawyers suggesting a whiff of romantic interest in communications that his accuser says were merely professional, friendly gestures.

Cross-examining Haleigh Breest at the trial of her rape lawsuit on Friday, defence lawyer Priya Chaudhry also challenged the accuser's account of feeling trapped during the 2013 encounter in Mr Haggis's apartment.

Ms Breest says the screenwriter-director forced her into oral sex and intercourse after pressing her to have a drink at his apartment. They had run into each other at a film premiere where she was working and he was a VIP guest.

Mr Haggis says that what happened between them was consensual.

The publicist and the filmmaker, known for writing Best Picture Oscar winners Crash and Million Dollar Baby in the early 2000s, began crossing paths at premieres around 2012 and exchanged some emails.

Ms Chaudhry pointed to an October 2012 message in which Ms Breest wrote to Mr Haggis to say “we miss seeing you” at premieres, adding some compliments on how a film project of his was coming together and asking how long he would be at the shoot in Italy.

“And then you told him that you look forward to seeing him at something once he’s back in the city,” Ms Chaudhry noted.

Ms Breest had written “looking forward to seeing you around the holidays” after Mr Haggis replied that he would be back around then.

The publicist characterised the exchange as a “touchpoint email” meant to maintain contact on her employer’s behalf.

Ms Chaudhry referred to another email, from Ms Breest to her boss, in which Ms Breest enthused about seeing Mr Haggis on the guest list for the screening on the night she ended up going to his apartment.

His lawyer drilled down on Ms Breest’s tone, her penchant for signing messages with “xx” or the like, and even her use of exclamation points. And Ms Chaudhry asked whether Ms Breest would flirt only with men to whom she was attracted.

“For the most part,” Ms Breest said. “I think that on occasion, I’ve probably flirted with people where there’s no romantic interest, possibly.”

Ms Breest gave evidence on Thursday that she did not flirt with and had no romantic feelings towards Mr Haggis, and that she unequivocally told him as much when she agreed to a nightcap at his apartment.

“Just so you know, I’m not spending the night,” she told him, according to the evidence she presented.

Ms Breest said that she felt obliged to accept Mr Haggis's offer of a drink and deflected his initial attempts to kiss her but stayed to try to avoid alienating an important person in her industry. She told jurors she was “absolutely paralysed and terrified” when she said the assault escalated.

His lawyer, however, repeatedly quizzed her about remaining at Mr Haggis's apartment.

The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Ms Breest has done.

Her lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

Updated: October 22, 2022, 5:53 AM