Harvey Weinstein defense flips the script: Accusers are opportunists, not victims
As Harvey Weinstein’s attorneys interrogated a key accuser in the film producer’s rape trial last week, they repeatedly nudged the jury to consider what the aspiring actress stood to gain from her on-again, off-again relationship with Weinstein.
They pointed to the numerous invitations to Hollywood awards show parties Jessica Mann received from the producer, which she accepted. They showed the jury emails that demonstrated how Mann turned to Weinstein for help several times over their four-year correspondence. And they noted that as Mann struggled to establish an acting career, Weinstein got her an audition for the 2014 film “Vampire Academy.”
While cross-examining Mann and other accusers, Weinstein’s attorneys have worked to upend the narrative of abuse the prosecution has built. They have asserted that not only were the alleged encounters with Weinstein consensual, they were part of a calculated effort by the accusers to siphon connections, acting roles and other favors from the former Hollywood titan.
This tactic is commonly used by the defense in sex crime cases, experts say, particularly when the accused holds much more power than the accuser.
“Once we start focusing on the victim and her motives, we stop focusing on the perpetrator and what he’s been accused of doing,” said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center. “It’s a great red herring.”
Prosecutors depicted Mann as a young, naïve woman from rural Washington state who met Weinstein at a Hollywood Hills party in 2013. She was waiting tables at the time but wanted to be an actress. Mann said Weinstein reminded her of her father and that she was desperate for the mogul’s validation.
But Mann emphasized in her testimony that she never took advantage of him financially.
“He offered to give me things, I refused them all,” she told the jury.
The strategy was repeatedly deployed during Mann’s testimony.
For nearly four hours, Mann detailed her allegedly abusive relationship with the mogul, who is charged with multiple counts of sexual assault and faces life in prison. Mann said Weinstein violently raped her at a Manhattan hotel in March 2013. In another instance, she said, the Hollywood titan bullied her into a bedroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel and forced oral sex on her.
Defense attorneys showed several emails in which Mann reached out to Weinstein after the alleged assaults. Her last sexual encounter with him was in late 2016, she said.
Mann turned to Weinstein when her father died and during a difficult breakup, emails show.
“The person you chose to reach out to was the person you claimed sexually assaulted you,” Defense attorney Donna Rotunno said. “You reached out to Harvey because you wanted to see him.”
“I always had mixed feelings, like — why’d I do that?” Mann replied.
“Well, you did it,” Rotunno said.
Rotunno also suggested that Mann used her relationship with Weinstein to help make connections in Hollywood.
“It is true that knowing him ... it can open doors,” Mann said. People want to get to [Weinstein] through you.”
In another email sent after the alleged assaults, Mann asked Weinstein if he could invite her to a private club in New York. Mann explained that she was trying to fulfill a request from her boss, who wanted access to the club, and Weinstein was the only member she knew.
“Are you saying that the person you wanted to sponsor you to this exclusive club was your rapist?”” Rottuno asked Mann.
“I do want the jury to know he is my rapist,” Mann said, appearing frustrated. She added that the request was “irrelevant” to her allegations.
The Times does not usually publish the names of alleged victims in sexual assault cases unless they identify themselves publicly, as Mann and some other accusers of Weinstein have done.
It’s common for survivors of sexual assault to maintain contact with their abusers, said Dan Schorr, a former prosecutor who now directs private sector sexual misconduct investigations. This can happen if victims are dependent financially or emotionally on the people who assaulted them, if they fear retaliation, or if they blame themselves for the assault.
“The mere fact that someone is alleging sexual abuse and maintains seemingly positive contact does not mean the abuse did not happen,” Schorr said.
Bill Cosby’s defense team similarly suggested that two women who accused the actor of drugging and raping them were not victims, but opportunists.
Andrea Constand and Beverly Johnson both accepted free comedy show tickets and small amounts of money from Cosby, the defense said. Cosby’s attorneys also noted that Constand took a meeting arranged by the comedian as she attempted to break into the broadcasting industry.
Constand told the jury she didn’t want to kindle conflict with Cosby by cutting off ties with him. Likewise, Mann said she stayed friendly with Weinstein in order to protect herself.
Cosby was convicted in 2018 of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Constand in 2004.
A defense team will use whatever tools they can to impeach the credibility of a complaining witness, said Dmitriy Shakhnevich, a New York defense attorney. In the case of Weinstein, a wealthy man with countless connections in the film industry, he said, building the narrative that his accusers were seeking favors from him is an obvious tactic.
“Typically there’s a powerful/powerless relationship in rape cases,” Shakhnevich said. “In this case, you have the most powerful person in Hollywood.”
The tactic may not have broad appeal when a jury considers all six women who testified against Weinstein, however. Annabella Sciorra, the Brooklyn actress who says Weinstein raped her in the early 1990s, was already established in Hollywood at the time of the alleged assault. Mimi Haley was working as a production assistant on the Weinstein Co.-produced “Project Runway” before the date of the 2006 rape she alleges Weinstein committed.
Similarly, the three women who testified as “prior bad acts” witnesses did not see any upward mobility in their Hollywood pursuits after their interactions with the mogul.
Still, the defense focused on other benefits some of the women could have reaped from their association with Weinstein. While cross-examining Haley, defense attorney Damon Cheronis noted that she emailed Weinstein to pitch him an idea for a reality television show after the date of the alleged assault.
The defense rested its case on Tuesday. Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, with deliberations expected to begin next week.
Framing accusers as opportunists has historically been effective as a defense strategy, Schorr said. But that argument has become less persuasive in recent years as society has become more aware of the complex dynamics that often exist between abusers and their victims, he said.
Even so, it could help the defense plant doubt in the minds of jurors. Any time the defense is able to string together such a story, it feels believable, Bruno said.
But “no matter what happens,” Bruno added, “I don’t think people will be deluded into thinking those women had a choice.”
Times staff writer James Queally in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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