With one lawyer bolting amid public backlash and another saying he and his client just couldn’t get along, a judge on Thursday approved a request to recast Harvey Weinstein’s defence team yet again, this time a mere 60 days before the disgraced movie mogul is due to stand trial in New York on sexual assault charges.
Lawyer Jose Baez, who’s known for representing high-profile clients such as Casey Anthony, asked for permission to leave Weinstein’s sexual assault case. The judge asked Weinstein if that was OK with him. Weinstein replied, “Yes” and the court gave the green light.
Weinstein, who ignored journalists’ questions outside the Manhattan courtroom, is adding two new lawyers, Donna Rotunno and Damon Cheronis, both of Chicago. The lawyers have promised the judge that they won’t seek to postpone the trial from its scheduled Sept. 9 start.
Rotunno has espoused a philosophy that the #metoo movement, spurred by revelations about Weinstein’s alleged behaviour, is overblown and that women are “responsible for the choices they make.”
“I chose to represent Harvey Weinstein because I think these are the types of cases that lawyers that do what I do live for,” Rotunno said outside the courthouse after Thursday’s hearing. “It gives us an opportunity to have a forum to speak what we believe, and I believe that the facts and evidence in this case are actually very favourable to Mr. Weinstein.”
Gloria Allred, who represents one of the accusers in the criminal case, offered a different perspective, saying, saying: “I agree that women are responsible for their own choices, but when will Mr. Weinstein be held responsible for his?”
Weinstein’s new lawyers join Arthur Aidala, a New York City lawyer whose clients have included rapper 50 Cent, former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and the late Fox News chief, Roger Ailes.
Baez is the latest defection from what was once seen as a modern version of O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” of attorneys.
The pretrial hearing played out in open court, but two conversations among the judge and lawyers happened in secrecy.
After approving Baez’s request to withdraw from the case, Judge James Burke called him to the bench for a one-on-one chat that lasted about five minutes.
There was no court reporter present to take a transcript of the conversation.
Later, he called all of the lawyers to the bench for a 10-minute discussion of how they’ll proceed when it comes time for jury selection. Again there was no court reporter to make a record of the conversation.
Aidala appeared perturbed by what he called the judge’s “extended private conversation” with Baez.
He asked if he could also approach the bench, but Burke waved him off.
Asked outside court if he was off the case, Baez responded, “”Yup. I feel like I won the lottery. Just kidding.”
Baez, known for representing high-profile clients such as Casey Anthony, told Burke in a letter last month that Weinstein has tarnished their relationship by communicating only through other lawyers and by failing to abide by a fee agreement.
“Mr. Weinstein has engaged in behaviour that makes this representation unreasonably difficult to carry out effectively and has insisted upon taking actions with which I have fundamental disagreements,” Baez wrote.
The swap comes after another Weinstein lawyer, Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan, left in May amid backlash about his involvement.
Sullivan’s involvement in the case drew protests from some students and faculty on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus.
Buildings were defaced with graffiti that included the slogans “Down w Sullivan!” ”Your Silence is Violence” and “Whose Side Are You On?” And the university removed him from his position as head of a student house citing “concerns about the climate” within the house.
Weinstein, 67, is charged with raping a woman in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006. He denies the allegations.
Baez and Sullivan started representing Weinstein in January, when the former movie producer overhauled his legal team for the first time. That happened after his original lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, lost a hard-fought bid to get the case thrown out.
Pamela Robillard Mackey, who represented Kobe Bryant in his 2003 Colorado sexual assault case, and ex-Manhattan prosecutor Duncan Levin were also hired in January and have since left.
AP Video Journalist Ted Shaffrey contributed to this report.
Michael R. Sisak And Ali Swenson, The Associated Press