Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial abruptly halted amid witness’s panic attack

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Judge suspended proceedings until Tuesday morning after a key witness was unable to bring her crying under control

Ed Pilkington in New York –  The Guardian

Harvey Weinstein departs New York criminal court after his sexual assault trial in Manhattan on 31 January. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial in New York had to be brought to an abrupt halt on Monday afternoon after one of his two main accusers was reduced to uncontrollable sobbing, having been subjected to more than four hours of relentless grilling at the hands of his defense lawyer.

James Burke, the judge presiding over the New York supreme court trial, suspended proceedings until Tuesday morning when the key witness was unable to bring her crying and breathing under control and appeared to have a panic attack. Even after a five-minute break, the woman continued to sob in her witness seat.

The breakdown occurred after the witness, who alleges that she was violently raped twice by the movie mogul in 2013, was put through hours of intense questioning by Weinstein’s defense team. Under cross-examination, spearheaded by the notoriously aggressive sex crimes attorney Donna Rotunno, the accuser was portrayed as a serial liar who manipulated Weinstein in order to advance a career in the film industry.

 

Rotunno launched her most aggressive character assassination yet of any of the women who have accused the producer of sexual assault. She accused the woman of lying on multiple occasions, suggesting she manipulated Weinstein by giving him the impression she was sexually keen on him.

“You manipulated Mr Weinstein every single time you saw him, isn’t that correct?” Rotunno said in a barrage of questioning. “Every time you engaged in consensual sexual encounters with him you manipulated him, isn’t that correct? You made him feel you wanted sexual relations with him.”

The witness replied: “No, that is not correct.”

The Guardian is not naming the witness because she has not indicated publicly whether she is happy to be identified. Weinstein’s fate potentially revolves around her, as she forms a central pillar of the prosecution’s case.

The fallen titan of Hollywood faces five counts that could see him punished with life imprisonment. Two of the counts are of rape and relate to the testimony of the anonymous accuser. Weinstein denies all accusations of non-consensual sex.

The witness began to cry after she was instructed by Rotunno to read out a long email she wrote to a former boyfriend in May 2014, a year after she was allegedly raped by Weinstein in a New York hotel. In it, she came clean about having had a sexual relationship with Weinstein and described what, in her opinion, was a deformity to his genitals.

“He no longer has a working penis,” the email read. “On the lower half of his body he had some type of surgery or burns.”

The witness also referenced an unspecified sexual assault that had happened in her past. Barely able to speak through the tears, she read out a part of the email that said: “I remember the day I realised I was controlling my world because I was sexually assaulted”.

Rotunno asked her whether that attack took place “when you were younger”, at which point the witness became inconsolable and the proceedings were temporarily halted.

The dramatic episode underlined the contentious strategy being pursued by Rotunno on behalf of the disgraced movie mogul.

On Friday, the court heard the woman, now 34, describe in graphic terms how the Hollywood producer, 67, allegedly raped her twice in the spring of 2013. After one of the alleged attacks, she said, she discovered a needle in a bathroom trash can that contained a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

Rotunno, a Chicago-based lawyer who specialises in defending men accused of sex crimes, has a reputation for being a fearsome cross-examiner. In many years of trial advocacy, she has only lost one case.

Her team promised in opening statements that it would refrain from victim shaming – a strategy commonly pursued by defendants in rape trials. Yet at poignant moments, Rotunno came close.

Such a tactic could be high risk in front of a jury composed of New Yorkers in the era of the #MeToo movement that was galvanised by the allegations against the movie mogul. Weinstein was first publicly accused by several women in October 2017.

Today the roll call of women who have lined up to tell their stories of having been allegedly sexually abused and harassed by him stands at 105 women, but the accounts of nearly all of them will not be part of the evidence in this trial.

In grilling of the four other women who have testified at the Weinstein trial, Rotunno has suggested they have a financial interest in bringing him down.

But she has never before been as blunt as to portray the accuser sitting in the witness stand as a liar and a manipulator. Prosecutors said the witness engaged in willing sexual encounters even after the alleged rapes in 2013.

In one particularly intense exchange, Rotunno said: “You stuck around for the rest of 2013, the rest of 2014, the rest of 2015, the rest of 2016”. The woman paused for a long time and then said: “I engaged with my abuser because … he kept threatening me and it was always in my best interest. I wanted to know I was OK.”

  • 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.

 

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