Harvey Weinstein’s lead defense attorney was lambasted on Tuesday by a prosecutor for writing an op-ed that directly addressed the jury ahead of trial deliberations, which were set to begin that morning.
The piece, penned by attorney Donna Rotunno and published in Newsweek on Sunday, implored the jury “to do what they know is right and was expected of them from the moment they were called upon to serve their civic duty in a court of law.”
“The mocking of Mr. Weinstein’s walker, the unflattering courtroom-artist sketches of his body, the countless critical op-eds and biased stories, and the convenient timing of the politically-motivated charges in Los Angeles were all designed to pre-determine his guilt,” Rotunno wrote.
Six women testified against the movie mogul in Manhattan, where he faces five counts of sexual assault and life in prison if convicted.
Before the trial began, Judge James Burke instructed attorneys not to give media interviews. But Rotunno has already come under fire for doing so; she gave an interview to the New York Times podcast “The Daily” in the middle of the trial, though she initially told Burke she was interviewed before proceedings began and had not spoken to any reporters since the start of the trial.
In that interview, reporter Megan Twohey asked Rotunno if she had ever been sexually assaulted.
“I have not,” Rotunno said. “Because I would never put myself in that position.”
Rotunno’s response drew swift criticism from sexual assault survivors and their advocates, who said the lawyer’s statements were tantamount to victim-blaming. Under the hashtag #WhereIPutMyself, survivors of sexual assault began sharing the settings in which they were attacked in direct response to Rotunno’s comments.
Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi said Rotunno’s Newsweek op-ed was “completely, 100% inappropriate behavior. It borders on tampering with the jury.”
“There’s no way that the sanctity and purity of a jury trial can ever exist and continue if every party is permitted to just go ahead and publicly say something that they would not be able to ... in court,” Illuzzi said.
The prosecutor asked Judge Burke to hold Weinstein in custody, asserting he had something to do with the op-ed.
“There is no way that Ms. Rotunno did this without the prompting and encouragement … of this defendant,” Illuzzi said.
Rotunno called the request to remand Weinstein “improper” and said it was “one small piece of a larger media attack on Mr. Weinstein.”
Though the specter of the dozens of women who have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct loomed over the trial from the start, the producer’s jury was chosen specifically for their professed ability to ignore media coverage and decide the case based only on evidence heard in court.
When speaking to Rotunno’s co-counsel, Damon Cheronis, Judge Burke said, “You don’t think addressing the jury in the first person isn’t problematic?”
Rotunno defended the op-ed, saying it was merely a commentary on the failures of the criminal justice system.
Burke emphatically barred either side from talking to reporters until a verdict was reached and cautioned the defense attorneys on “the tentacles” of their “public relations juggernaut.”