How a New Trial for Harvey Weinstein Could Again Test the Legal System

As one of Harvey Weinstein’s key accusers took the witness stand during his trial in New York, she broke down in tears, sobbing uncontrollably. After a brief break, she still could not compose herself. The trial was adjourned for the day. Hyperventilating, the woman was ushered out and her piercing screams bellowed out from a back room.

The episode was one of many tense moments in the highly publicized, weekslong trial of the former Hollywood titan in 2020. Now, they may happen all over again.

On Thursday, New York’s highest court ruled that the trial judge who presided over the sex crimes case in Manhattan erred when he let several women testify that Mr. Weinstein had assaulted them, even though their accusations were not part of the charges brought against the producer. The appeals court ordered a new trial.

But the original trial in 2020 against Mr. Weinstein was about much more than one man’s guilt. It had morphed into something more, as his accusers sparked the global #MeToo movement: Prosecutors were trying to prove not only that Mr. Weinstein was a sexual predator, but also that the justice system was both willing and able to hold powerful men accountable for their treatment of women.

The new ruling may do little to change the public’s perception of Mr. Weinstein, who is still notorious and behind bars and was sentenced to 16 years in prison for sex crimes in California.

For some, however, it raised new doubts about the legal system’s ability to hold influential people like him responsible.

Mr. Weinstein had been serving his sentence in an upstate New York prison when his conviction was overturned. He was transferred on Friday to the Rikers Island jail complex to await a new trial. On Friday night, Mr. Weinstein, whose health has been poor, was transferred to the Bellevue Hospital Center’s prison ward for testing, his lawyer and jail officials said.

A spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, said the office would do “everything in our power” to retry Mr. Weinstein. But for a case that many legal experts said was shaky from the start, it is unclear what a new trial would look like.

The initial criminal indictment charged Mr. Weinstein with sexually assaulting two women. Still, three other women were permitted to testify as Molineux witnesses, who are called on to show a defendant’s pattern of behavior. The case turned solely on whether a jury would believe the women’s testimony. Prosecutors did not have any physical evidence to support the women’s accounts. Mr. Weinstein, prosecutors said, was a predator who used his power in the film industry to prey on women.

Yet the district attorney’s office had to help jurors understand the complex relationships that sometimes exist between victim and abuser: The two main accusers had maintained friendships with Mr. Weinstein after the alleged assaults, and one of them even had some consensual sexual encounters with him. Mr. Weinstein has said that all of the encounters were consensual.

Unless new accusers — who may be called as witnesses at the second trial — come forward, prosecutors would have to rely on the testimony of one or both of the women Mr. Weinstein was initially convicted of assaulting.

One of the women, Miriam Haley, a former production assistant on the television show “Project Runway,” accused Mr. Weinstein of forcing oral sex on her in 2006 at his loft in Lower Manhattan. The other, Jessica Mann, then an aspiring actress, said Mr. Weinstein raped her in a New York hotel room.

The women, if called to testify during a second trial, would have to face another round of grueling cross-examinations by Mr. Weinstein’s lawyers.

Ms. Haley said during a news conference on Friday that she would consider testifying again. But she said preparing for the trial was exhausting, forcing her and the other women to relive their trauma over and over.

“I definitely don’t actually want to go through that again, but for the sake of keeping going and doing the right thing and because it is what happened, I would consider it,” she said. “It is difficult for me personally, but it is important for the collective.”

Ms. Mann did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The district attorney’s office did not directly respond to questions about a new trial. But in a statement this week, a spokesperson said that the office will “center survivors’ experiences and well-being in every decision we make.”

Arthur Aidala, Mr. Weinstein’s lawyer, said the contours of any new trial are “in the prosecutor’s hands.” He said that his team would object to any plans from the prosecution to call on Ms. Mann because they believe Mr. Weinstein “has already served the maximum he could serve in her case.”

But the district attorney’s office should not have difficulties starting over as long as Ms. Mann and Ms. Haley are willing to move forward with a new trial, said Michelle Madden Dempsey, a law professor at Villanova University who used to be a domestic violence prosecutor in Illinois.

She said prosecutors have been reluctant to bring sexual assault cases if they are built around the experiences of victims alone, without adding other witnesses who can speak to the defendant’s pattern of behavior, Ms. Dempsey said.

Jane Manning, the director of Women’s Equal Justice, an advocacy group, and a former sex crimes prosecutor, said the district attorney’s office could make use of “outcry witnesses” — people whom the accusers confided in about their assaults — and other witnesses who could corroborate the accusers’ testimony.

For example, during the 2020 trial, a hotel worker testified that he was worried about Ms. Mann’s safety when he saw her with Mr. Weinstein in the lobby. He said he left a note for security to check on her in Mr. Weinstein’s room.

It would be harder for prosecutors to win a conviction in a new trial without the Molineux witnesses, according to legal experts.

The use of these witnesses can be contentious and it can be difficult to get a New York court to admit their testimony into a trial. Judges are tasked with weighing whether the testimony can help prove that a crime was part of a pattern of behavior against the potential to prejudice the jury against the defendant.

Prosecutors had called on three such witnesses, all of whom were aspiring actresses who said Mr. Weinstein sexually assaulted them after luring them into private meetings to discuss their careers. They also added a fourth witness, the actress Annabella Sciorra, whose testimony was intended to support predatory sexual assault charges, even though her alleged encounter with Mr. Weinstein happened too long ago to be charged separately as rape. (The jury did not convict Mr. Weinstein of predatory sexual assault.)

“Those ‘prior bad acts’ really helped to prop up the credibility of the evidence,” said David Shapiro, a former prosecutor in Essex County, N.J., and a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“This is really going to make the likelihood of convicting him again more difficult,” he added.

But Mr. Shapiro said prosecutors’ use of such witnesses was “overkill” and that they played a role in Mr. Weinstein’s conviction being overturned.

Mr. Weinstein did not testify during the original trial. His lawyers told The New York Times that if he had, the judge would have allowed the prosecution to question him about other allegations related to physical assaults, threats and other violent behavior.

Mr. Weinstein wants to testify in a new trial, Mr. Aidala said, though he called it a “game-time decision.” A second trial could open Mr. Weinstein up to a brutal cross-examination by prosecutors.

“He has proclaimed his innocence, unequivocally and repeatedly,” Mr. Aidala said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Weinstein will appear at a hearing in the same courthouse where he was tried and convicted. It will be the first step in the process toward a new trial, should the district attorney decide to retry him.

Because the appeals court cited legal errors in overturning the conviction — but did not exonerate Mr. Weinstein — the ruling may also galvanize victims to “want to fight harder,” said Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a nonprofit.

But if prosecutors drop the case, he said, it would have “a really deflating and depressing effect.”

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