NEW YORK, NY – Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers went to court Thursday with a last-minute demand to halt jury selection and move his rape trial out of New York City, where they say intense publicity, protesters and even the consideration of supermodel Gigi Hadid as a juror have turned the case into a “media and entertainment circus.”
Weinstein's lawyers detoured to the Manhattan appellate court for oral arguments hours after the 24-year-old Hadid was dismissed from the jury pool and as jurors were starting to be picked for the case. By the end of the day, seven jurors — four men and three women — had been selected from about 145 potential jurors who remained in the pool after an initial round of questioning.
Weinstein's lawyers, who floated similar concerns in a losing effort to move the trial in October, said a “carnival-like atmosphere” has taken hold during eight days of jury selection, making it impossible for Weinstein to get a fair trial in his hometown.
“The deluge of publicity adverse to Mr. Weinstein has engulfed the potential jury pool resulting in untoward pressure upon jurors to convict a man demonized and prejudged guilty,” Weinstein's lawyer Arthur Aidala wrote in a filing that spurred Thursday's trip to the appellate court.
Weinstein, 67, is charged with raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and sexually assaulting another woman in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty and said any sexual activity was consensual. If convicted, Weinstein could face life in prison.
His lawyers acknowledge media coverage of the ex-movie mogul's case extends beyond the city, but they argue the furor has reached an only-in-New-York degree.
“You're in the media capital of the world,” Weinstein attorney John Esposito told appellate Justice David Friedman.
Prosecutors oppose moving the trial, pointing to the plethora of potential jurors still in the running — all pledged they could be fair and impartial — as evidence that the process is working. Moving to a smaller community with a smaller jury pool would only make it more difficult to find jurors, they added.
As for the protests, prosecutor Valerie Figuerdo argued: “There’s no reason to think the jurors would be impacted by it because New Yorkers see protests all the time."
The appellate court did not immediately rule on moving the trial. The matter will go to a panel of judges with the aim of having a decision before opening statements, which could happen as early as next week. Friedman declined a request from Weinstein’s lawyers to halt the trial until the panel rules.
Last week, Weinstein's lawyers tried and failed to get jury selection halted for a “cooling off” period after Los Angeles prosecutors announced charges against him there on the first day of the New York City trial. The defense said the California charges, which allege Weinstein sexually assaulted one woman and raped another on back-to-back nights in February 2013, ushered in “a new wave of negative press.”
Next, they asked the judge, James Burke, to step aside for admonishing Weinstein and threatening to jail him for texting in the courtroom. Burke rejected that request.
In pushing to get the trial moved, Weinstein's lawyers cited “flash mob” protests in the streets outside the Manhattan courthouse during jury selection, with chanting and banging from pots and pans heard in the courtroom 15 stories up, as well other factors such as the frenzy over Hadid's appearance in the jury pool.
Hadid was at the courthouse for a matter of minutes Thursday before being cut from the list of potential jurors, shaking hands with a court officer on her way out.
The supermodel had caused a stir Monday when she emerged as a potential juror, telling the judge she had met both Weinstein and a potential witness, actress Salma Hayek, but could “keep an open mind on the facts."
Nonetheless, the defense and prosecutors later agreed that having her on the jury would create too much commotion.
Burke has said he expects a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates to be seated in time for opening statements and testimony next Wednesday. He told prospective jurors that he expected the trial to finish up in early March.