Harvey Weinstein's bulldog defense lawyer was his best weapon

Weinstein’s ‘bulldog’ defense lawyer Donna Rotunno who loathes the #MeToo movement, loves representing accused rapists and says she’s ‘never been sexually assaulted because she never put herself in the position to be’

  • Weinstein was convicted of two of the five counts; third degree rape and criminal sex act
  • He now faces decades in prison but got off on the most serious charges  
  • Donna Rotunno, dubbed an ‘anti-Me Too lawyer’ and a ‘bulldog in the courtroom’, took aim at the credibility of Weinstein’s accusers during his trial
  • Rotunno has previously been accused of victim-blaming and saying women should take responsibility for their actions 
  • She has said in the past she doesn’t support the #MeToo movement because it can unfairly sway public opinion against defendants 
  • Rotunno took on Weinstein’s case in June 2019 – two years after dozens of allegations against Weinstein fueled the #MeToo movement
  • A former prosecutor, Rotunno has represented some 40 defendants accused of sexual assault since she opened her own firm in Chicago in 2005 

Harvey Weinstein’s bulldog lead defence lawyer Donna Rotunno, who loathes the #MeToo movement, was considered to be the movie mogul’s best weapon prior to his rape trial. 

During the New York trial, Rotunno – dubbed an ‘anti-Me Too lawyer’ and a ‘bulldog in the courtroom’ – took aim at the credibility of the women accusing Weinstein of assaulting them. 

While she could not spare him a conviction – Weinstein was found guilty of third degree rape and a criminal sex act on Monday February 24 – he was acquitted of the most serious charges; two counts of predatory sexual assault and first degree rape.  

Rotunno has also repeatedly courted controversy since taking on Weinstein’s case as she was accused of blaming the victims and saying women should take responsibility for their actions.

An interview she gave for a New York Times podcast was brought up during the trial after it emerged Rotunno had said she’d never been assaulted because she wouldn’t ‘put herself in that position’.

Donna Rotunno, Weinstein’s ‘secret weapon’, is shown with him in July before the trial began. Her defense strategy was to attack the accusers’ credibility and force the jury to hold them accountable for ‘choosing’ to have sexual contact with the movie mogul 

Responding to a question about whether she had ever been sexually assaulted, Rotunno said: ‘I have not, I have not. Because I would never put myself in that position’.

‘I’ve always made choices from college age on where I never drank too much, I never went home with someone I didn’t know. I just never put myself in any vulnerable circumstance ever.’ 

In an ABC interview earlier this year, Rotunno said of the victims: ‘If you don’t want to be a victim, don’t go to the hotel room.’ 

In a separate interview with Vanity Fair, Rotunno said: ‘If women want equal rights and equal pay and equal opportunity, then you have to also take equal responsibility. 

‘I think it’s easy to look back and say, ‘Oh, you know, maybe I didn’t love that experience’. Well, okay. Regret sex is not rape.’ 

Rotunno, who is not married and lives alone, has previously said she does not support the #MeToo movement because it can unfairly sway public opinion against defendants. 

She routinely represents accused rapists.  

Rotunno said her belief that unproven allegations and media scrutiny had eroded Weinstein’s right to a fair trial motivated her to take the case. 

Rotunno took on Weinstein’s case in June 2019 – two years after dozens of allegations against Weinstein fueled the #MeToo movement.

During his trial, Rotunno appeared each day at Weinstein’s side, unflinching in the face of flashing cameras.  

Rotunno, who comes from a large Italian-American family and has 14 godchildren, has made a career out of representing men accused of sexual assault. 

A former Chicago prosecutor, Rotunno has represented some 40 defendants accused of sexual assault since she opened her own firm in Chicago in 2005.  

Rotunno has also repeatedly courted controversy since taking on Weinstein’s case as she was accused of blaming the victims and saying women should take responsibility for their actions

Rotunno has appeared each day at Weinstein’s side, unflinching in the face of flashing cameras

Weinstein had cycled through several high-profile lawyers since his indictment in 2018, including Jose Baez and Benjamin Brafman. He nixed Brafman over differences in legal strategy and Baez quit claiming Weinstein’s behavior made the job ‘unreasonably difficult’. 

But Rotunno – the first woman to lead his defense – said she found Weinstein ‘very easy to work with’.

Her clients have included Senegalese fashion designer Elhadji Gueye and Stanley Stallworth, a former partner at Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, who were both accused of rape and acquitted. 

Taking on Weinstein’s case catapulted Rotunno into the spotlight as she geared up to defend the Hollywood producer against allegations he raped onetime aspiring actress Jessica Mann in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and forcibly performed oral sex on film production assistant Mimi Haleyi in 2006. 

In addition to the two main accusers, four additional women – including Sopranos actress Annabella Sciorra, were called to testify as witnesses to bolster the case against him. 

During Weinstein’s trial, Rotunno assailed her client’s accusers and said it was ‘disingenuous’ for ‘overzealous’ prosecutors to argue that the six women who testified had acted independently.

She also urged jurors to use common sense in evaluating the evidence after Weinstein pleaded not guilty to sexually assaulting former production assistant Mimi Haleyi in 2006 and raping Jessica Mann, a onetime aspiring actress, in 2013.  

‘In October 2017, the biggest story in the world was about Harvey Weinstein,’ she said, referring to the first news reports about allegations against Weinstein. ‘They all knew that story.’  

Haleyi testified at trial that Weinstein forced oral sex on her in his home in 2006. Some time later, she said, she went to see him in a hotel in an effort to ‘regain some sort of power’. She testified that Weinstein pulled her onto a bed and had sex with her.

Haleyi said she ‘went numb’ during the encounter and did not want to have sex with Weinstein. Under cross-examination, she said she had not been forced. She acknowledged sending several friendly emails to Weinstein after the encounter. 

Rotunno said in her closing arguments that Haleyi and Weinstein had ‘more of a relationship than she wants you to believe,’ pointing to Haleyi’s emails and her decision to accept plane tickets from Weinstein to Los Angeles and London after the alleged assault. 

In an interview with nightline, Rotunno said: ‘If you don’t want to be a victim, don’t go to the hotel room. And if you don’t want to be a victim, don’t sign an NDA. Go out onto 5th Avenue, take a megaphone and talk about what you want to talk about’ 

In yet another interview, Rotunno spoke of Weinstein’s innocence 

Rotunno said the opinion piece, published on Saturday and titled ‘Jurors in my client Harvey Weinstein’s case must look past the headlines’, was not intended to address the jury directly

WEINSTEIN LAWYER ADMONISHED BY JUDGE FOR OP-ED TO JURORS: 

The United States justice system has proven fair and effective throughout the history of our nation. But not always.

The Constitution guarantees certain rights to defendants that juries have an obligation to uphold. I believe most jurors respect their duty to remain fair and impartial. Every so often though, a case comes along that dominates the headlines and pushes the limits of the system to a breaking point.

For the process to work as intended and to operate in good faith, jurors must accept the responsibility of not just considering the facts, testimony and evidence, but cutting through the noise of a media and public intent on injecting their narratives into the courtroom, twisting those facts to fit their point of view. The burden of proof is on the prosecution; the media and public have no such burden.

Judges instruct jurors to avoid all media coverage and outside influences in making their decision. But in a high-profile case like Harvey Weinstein’s, does anyone think that’s realistically possible?

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.

However, Mr. Weinstein’s jurors have an obligation to themselves and their country, to base their verdict solely on the facts, testimony and evidence presented to them in the courtroom.

I expect a fair and impartial jury for Mr. Weinstein and every other American. I implore the members of this 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 facts are the facts. Harvey Weinstein is innocent. His fate hangs in the balance, and the world is watching.

Rotunno said the ‘real time communication’ between Haleyi and Weinstein would lead ‘any reasonable person’ to conclude they had a good relationship.

Rotunno then turned to Mann’s testimony.

Mann had testified that Weinstein raped her in a Manhattan hotel room early in what she called an ‘extremely degrading’ relationship with him. That relationship continued for years and included consensual sex, Mann said.

Rotunno said Mann’s emails with Weinstein, as well as trial testimony from two of her friends at the time, indicated that she did not appear distressed after the alleged rape, undermining her story.

She said Mann ‘couldn’t keep anything straight’ under cross-examination.

Prior to Weinstein’s trial, Rotunno had said in an interview with Reuters that she believed that her gender could prove to be an asset in the courtroom. 

‘In a case where multiple women will be taking the stand to testify, it’s a different dynamic when you have a female involved in the defense,’ Rotunno said. 

Rotunno said she could be tougher in cross-examination than a male attorney without coming across as a ‘bully,’ and that factor could be an advantage.

She said, however, her tactic was not to intimidate, and her gender was just one strength she brings to the defense.

‘I don’t raise my voice,’ she said. ‘I’m not there to embarrass anyone, I’m not there to shame anyone.’

Prior to jurors being sent out for deliberations on Tuesday, Judge James Burke slammed Rotunno for an op-ed she wrote that was published by Newsweek on Saturday.  

In his sharpest rebuke to date, the judge said: ‘I want to caution you about the tentacles of your public relations juggernaut’. 

He has now banned Weinstein’s defense team from speaking to the media until after the trial ends. 

Rotunno told Burke that the opinion piece, titled ‘Jurors in my client Harvey Weinstein’s case must look past the headlines’, was not intended to address the jury directly.

‘This is an op-ed about the jury system as a whole, about the criminal justice system as a whole,’ she said.   

Prosecutors said the article was ‘akin to jury tampering’ and demanded that Weinstein be remanded in custody because he must have directed it. The judge did not act on the request.

In the op-ed, Rotunno said jurors were asked to avoid all media coverage and outside influences but questioned whether anyone thought it was ‘realistically possible’ in a ‘high-profile case like Harvey Weinstein’s’. 

‘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,’ she wrote. 

‘However, Mr Weinstein’s jurors have an obligation to themselves and their country, to base their verdict solely on the facts, testimony and evidence presented to them in the courtroom. 

‘I implore the members of this 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 facts are the facts. Harvey Weinstein is innocent. His fate hangs in the balance, and the world is watching.’

Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon argued the op-ed was ‘completely 100 per cent inappropriate behavior’.

‘This is a direct violation of the court’s orders… if this is the conduct which is allowed in this court then we are all lost. There is no way the sanctity of a jury can ever exist and continue if every party is permitted to say something that would not be able to say in court.’

Illuzzi-Orbon demanded that the jury be instructed to ignore the Newsweek op-ed. 

 

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