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In a legal milestone for the MeToo movement, movie producer Harvey Weinstein was convicted Monday of two felony sex crimes -- but acquitted of the most serious ones. How should we interpret the jury’s verdict? Donna Rotunno, one of Weinstein’s defense attorneys, has represented more than 40 defendants accused of sexual misconduct over the past 15 years, and she joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.
Now let's discuss this with one of Weinstein's defense attorneys, Donna Rotunno. She joins us from New York.
Donna, welcome to the "NewsHour."
In response to the verdict, you said in a statement there are issues in the trial that — quote — "prejudiced" your client's ability to have his case fairly judged.
You are taking this up with a higher court, we should point out. But in what way do you think this jury or this court were prejudiced towards Mr. Weinstein?
Well, I don't know if Mr. Weinstein could have found a fair jury anywhere, frankly, with the media coverage that has happened for the last two years, with the fact that, especially in New York, every day, he's a headline.
He's on the cover of The Post. He's a headline in The New York Times, The Daily News, The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed. So, I think it was very difficult.
When we questioned jurors, not one of the jurors had not heard of Mr. Weinstein out of the weeks of jury selection. So I think we were just put in a difficult position from day one.
But he was convicted on two charges. They also acquitted him on two charges.
So, is it fair to say that they prejudged him, when they did end up acquitting him on two of those charges?
Well, they acquitted him on three charges, actually, and acquitted (sic) him on two.
I think that, really, what this was about was, the evidence wasn't there to support a conviction. I have said that from the very beginning. I know, when I first got involved in this case, everyone thought that that was a crazy statement to make, but I think, once the trial did play out and the witnesses did testify, I think that became a little more clearer — a little more clear, I should say.
But, in this case, the pressure, I think, on the jury made them look at this case and not worry about the lack of evidence, and they worried more about the court of public opinion.
And what I found most interesting was, as the jurors were walking out, they didn't look at Harvey, they didn't look at the prosecutors. They looked at the press. And that really told me a lot. I think they were concerned about coming back with a finding of not guilty on all counts.
I do think that the sort of split verdict shows us that there was definitely some doubt back there.
Well, there was a lot of attention paid. You're right about that.
I want to ask you about some of the reports that came out midtrial, because you were criticized about the way that you were questioning some of those witnesses. People said that you went very, very hard, in particular after Jessica Mann. At one point, she was crying so hard, the proceedings in the courtroom had to stop.
You were questioning really about why she continued to be in touch with Mr. Weinstein even after the rape, asking him for professional help and staying in touch with him.
Why did you think that was an important line of questioning? How did that help your defense?
Well, I don't know how it is not important.
Of course, none of us know what happened — what happens in those rooms. And we have no idea. We're not there. I'm not there. You're not there, the judge, the jury.
But what we do know is every piece of evidence that we had documented after the fact. And so to not look at the totality of the circumstances to determine what really took place in that room seems remiss.
And, you know, as a criminal defense attorney, I go into court, and I have to defend my client. I have to ask questions that have not been asked. I have to ask questions that are difficult. I have to present evidence that wasn't presented.
And when you look at how these cases get to the point of going to trial, there's a grand jury process.
And when the prosecutors brought Jessica Mann before the grand jury, she didn't tell those grand jurors that she had had sexual relations with him after the fact that were consensual in 2016. She didn't tell the grand jury about the e-mail communications.
So, you know, they told this story in a vacuum. And the first time we were really able to bring the full picture to light was the trial. And, at that point, so much had already been written on it, it was almost as if it was an afterthought.
Donna, you mentioned the things that we know. We also know, statistically, that most sexual assault survivors know their attacker in some way. We also know that you can have a consensual sexual relationship with someone and still be raped by them.
What is, do you think, the appropriate level of contact between someone like Jessica Mann and Mr. Weinstein?
Well, I don't know who can say what's appropriate and what isn't appropriate.
But we have a five-year period of communication that continued after the fact. And this is not something where — you know, we talk about domestic abuse situations, which don't equate in any way to this. That's someone who lives in a home with somebody, that maybe has children with somebody, that may be financially dependent on somebody.
That's not the case here. Jessica Mann, you know, benefited from Mr. Weinstein in certain ways, but definitely not in ways that affected her ability to live a life or have a job.
You know, she asked him for help in multiple different avenues, whether it was, help me get a job or help me get into a private club or help me with my car.
And so, you know, the continued contact, seeking out, the way she spoke about him to other people, the way she spoke about him to therapists, the way she defended him to her boyfriend, this wasn't incidental contact that someone has because they feel like they need to maintain a decent relationship. This far surpassed that.
Donna, related to the trial, but not directly, you got a lot of attention for an interview you gave to Megan Twohey of The New York Times.
It was about the case, but — and about the trial, but then she ended the interview by asking you if you had ever been a victim of sexual assault. And you said, "No, I have not."
And then you said — quote — "Because I would never put myself in that position."
I have to ask you, do you believe that these women, who a jury now decided were raped and assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, put themselves in a situation for that to happen?
Well, I have to say, that question was asked to me solely. That question wasn't asked to me about other people. It wasn't a commentary on anyone else. It wasn't a commentary on, you know, specific victims in any way.
So, that was a question asked to me. And, you know, for me, I would rather fight to my death than be put in a circumstance where somebody was going to sexually assault me. But that's my — that's an answer from me, you know, having nothing to do with anyone else.
Let me ask you about what Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance said.
He did say that, today, in this day and age, things are different when it comes to how the court views some of these allegations of sexual crimes, that things have changed in some way over the last three or four years.
Do you believe that this verdict today — and I ask you because you have defended a number of people who are accused of sexual misconduct over the years — do you believe this verdict changes how sex crimes are viewed and handled in our legal system?
I hope not. I hope not, because, if we don't look at individual cases on their merits, and we don't look at evidence particular to a specific defendant and a specific case, and we start putting things under some umbrella of the way we should do things, I think that would be scary for you, scary for me, and scary for anyone charged with a crime in this country.
At the same time, we also know that allegations of rape and sexual crimes, they are vastly underreported and very difficult to prove in a court of law.
Don't you believe there should be some weight given to the credibility of women when they come forward with these allegations?
Well, you know, you have — we have a presumption of independence in our country.
And the presumption of innocence is that someone charged with a crime has the right to be viewed as an innocent person. There is not a presumption that someone is telling the truth.
So, I think that to say that we should just walk into a courtroom, let someone tell their story or their version of the events, without questioning that version, puts us all in jeopardy.
I don't think that we should be able to give more credibility — credibility to someone just because they say that they were sexually assaulted.
And I will always refer back to the Duke lacrosse team. And if we did that in that case, you would have that whole entire group of young men at the time sitting in the penitentiary.
So, I think we have to be very careful. It's a slippery slope.
Donna Rotunno, defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein, joining us from New York, thank you for being with us.
I appreciate it. Thank you.
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