Harvey Weinstein trial: how finding an impartial jury became a spectacle

A surprise appearance from Gigi Hadid, the threat of prison for an ill-judged tweet and protests have plagued jury selection

A surprise appearance from a supermodel, the threat of prison for a tweet and the intense search for an impartial jury has turned the rape trial of Harvey Weinstein into a spectacle in its early weeks and raised fears over the difficulty of picking an impartial jury.

The New York supreme court called in 2,000 people as potential jurors for the case, which kicked off on 6 January. About 600 actually showed up to court, and the numbers have slowly been whittled down closer to the 12 jurors and six alternates the trial calls for. By Thursday afternoon, seven jurors had been confirmed. Opening arguments are set to take place 22 January.

Crafting a jury for Weinstein’s trial has not been easy. Members of a jury are supposed to come into the trial with no biases about Weinstein or the women being represented in the case.

Each day during jury selection, more than a hundred potential jurors have streamed into the courtroom where the trial is taking place. There, many of them have gotten glimpses of the disgraced movie mogul in the flesh, who comes to court with his lawyers every day, the whir of his metal walker clashing with the silence that falls on the room upon his arrival.

More than 100 women have come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein, but the trial’s focus is on two women: one who accused him of rape, and a second who charged a criminal sexual act.

Weinstein has denied all allegations.

Harvey Weinstein arrives at New York City criminal court with his attorney Donna Rotunno on 17 January.
Harvey Weinstein arrives at New York City criminal court with his attorney Donna Rotunno on 17 January. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Reuters

In the early stages of the trial’s jury selection, a third of the pool of 600 potential jurors were dismissed after telling Judge James Burke that they could not be impartial jurors on the case. More were dismissed later after divulging details, such as connections they have to Weinstein or his accusers.

One potential juror said he lived across the street from the Tribeca Film Center, where the Tribeca film festival is held, and could not be impartial. “On several occasions I’ve seen him on the phone screaming at someone,” the potential juror told the judge.

Supermodel Gigi Hadid was revealed to be a potential juror for the case on Monday. She said she had met Weinstein and knew Salma Hayek, who accused Weinstein of sexual harassment in 2018, but assured the judge that she could “keep an open mind on the facts”.

Though she took home a questionnaire, Hadid was promptly dismissed from the pool of potential jurors on Thursday.

Members of the jury pool have been ordered not to discuss the case they were called for unless they are dismissed – an order that has proven hard to follow with the buzz around the case.

A member of the jury pool was brought before the judge and told he could get 30 days jail time for tweeting a joke about whether he can leverage “serving on the jury of a high-profile case” to promote his book. The judge told the man to come back to court in March with a lawyer.

Women with blindfolds protest in front of the New York City criminal court on 10 January.
Women with blindfolds protest in front of the New York City criminal court on 10 January. Photograph: John Lamparski/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media

Over the course of the trial, Weinstein’s team has made multiple attempts to delay the trial and push for jury selection to happen in private, saying that potential jurors can influence each other as they are questioned by the lawyers and judge.

Weinstein’s lawyer Arthur Aidala filed a request asking an appeals court to move the trial out of New York City, citing Hadid’s presence in court as something that “only contributes to the carnival-like atmosphere” and the high-profile nature of the case.

Burke has largely been unsympathetic to their requests.

“The reality is people chant and protest outside this courthouse more often than not,” Burke said when a flash mob anti-rape protest could be heard from inside the courtroom.

He has also reassured multiple pools of jurors that knowing about Weinstein and his case will not automatically disqualify them from being on the jury.

“Having heard of Harvey Weinstein or even being familiar with the allegations made against him in the press or elsewhere are not by themselves disqualifying and does not mean that you’re not permitted to sit as a juror in this case,” he told a group of jurors after noting that he heard a gasp coming from the group when he announced the name of the case.

Daniel Filler, an expert on sex crimes and dean of Drexel University’s Kline School of Law in Pennsylvania, said that the judge in Weinstein’s case has no choice but to afford flexibility to jurors who have heard of Weinstein’s case.

“A judge has a tremendous amount of latitude in jury selection as long as the juror asserts that he or she can be fair,” Filler said. “The law understands that you’re going to have jurors who have opinions, who may have pre-existing knowledge [of the case].”

While the venue of the trial can be changed, like Weinstein’s team is asking to do, Filler said that would not be much help to the headache of jury selection. “You can’t run away to Westchester county or Hudson county and solve a problem,” Filler said, citing the counties just north of New York City. “These cases are famous everywhere.”


Lauren Aratani in New York

The GuardianTramp

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