Harvey Weinstein’s much-delayed sexual assault trial is expected to begin jury selection in September, and in anticipation, he’s rearranged his legal team for the third time. Perhaps inevitably, his lawyers now include defense attorney Donna Rotunno, who’s best known for representing men accused of sexual assault, questions the MeToo movement as a whole, and has said in previous interviews that her gender allows her to get away with more “venom” when cross-examining accusers.
To recap his byzantine legal affairs: Weinstein is heading to trial on charges of raping one woman in 2013 and forcibly performing a sex act on another in 2006, and has pleaded not guilty. (Separately, his board reportedly paid some $44 million to settle threatened civil suits.) His legal defense teams have fallen apart almost as fast as they were assembled; the latest attorney to leave the case, Jose Baez, complained in court documents that Weinstein “engaged in behavior that makes this representation unreasonably difficult to carry out effectively and has insisted upon taking actions with which I have fundamental disagreements.” Ronald S. Sullivan, a Harvard dean who faced fierce criticism from students there for representing Weinstein and subsequently stepped down as the faculty dean of an undergraduate house, has also withdrawn from the case.
Enter Rotunno, who said in a press conference this week that Weinstein had been “railroaded” by the #MeToo movement. She also claimed that the evidence at trial will show his “relationships” were consensual:
This is what defense attorneys for people accused of rape and assault do, of course, and Rotunno has made it a special cornerstone of her practice. In a 2018 profile in Chicago magazine, Rotunno paid some lip service to the idea that MeToo was long overdue, but also said she was concerned that it was leading to a culture of “conviction by allegation:”
In such cases, people are often summarily convicted in the court of public opinion, and this deeply disturbs Rotunno, precisely because she worries that the “believe women” creed risks seeping into courts of law. “We are in an era of conviction by allegation in this country right now,” she says, “which flies in the face of the entire principle of innocent until proven guilty.”
Rotunno also said that she considered her gender an asset, because she believes it allows her not to look like “a bully” in court when “going at” female accusers with what she called “venom:”
She’s wearing rectangular designer eyeglasses, a cropped leather jacket, a plaid skirt that falls just below the knee, and suede heels—a look she readily admits is carefully calibrated to convey both strength and femininity. Her gender, she acknowledges, is an asset in her job.
“I have the ability to get away with a lot more in a courtroom cross-examining a female than a male lawyer does,” she says. “He may be an excellent lawyer, but if he goes at that woman with the same venom that I do, he looks like a bully. If I do it, nobody even bats an eyelash. And it’s been very effective.”
That’s a good fit for Weinstein, who, from the start of his public unraveling, has demonstrated a keen interest in using women as metaphorical human shields. One of his public statements used polite quotes from Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep acknowledging he’d never sexually assaulted them, a move that Streep later called “pathetic and exploitive.” (Weinstein’s ex-wife Georgina Chapman, meanwhile, gave an interview to Vogue last year which had the dual goals of trying to firmly distance herself from his misdeeds and save Marchesa, her fashion brand.) He’s also, of course, happy to discredit his accusers in any way necessary: a previous attorney said they planned to use “intimate, personal, very friendly correspondence” from women accusing him of assault.
But attempting to use women in the court of public opinion will only go so far. It’s almost surprising that it took Weinstein this long to find Rotunno, to get a woman to publicly say what would be unsayable for him, to ambitiously try to kneecap the entire movement begun by the revelations of his monstrous behavior.
It’s in keeping with his seeming certainty that it is, somehow, possible to come back from any of this, with a battery of public statements, not guilty pleas, performative stints in sex rehab, and, bizarrely, reported plans to make a movie about the “opioid crisis.”
Rotunno believes in redemption too, apparently, though in her case she may be aiming for a much more modest kind. “[F]or them to be able to walk out of there—even if they’ve been beaten, battered, scarred, bruised,” she told Chicago, “—and at least have that order that says ‘A court found me not guilty,’ that’s important to me.”