AFRICANGLOBE – A Manhattan judge barred the media from covering a key pre-trial hearing in the Harvey Weinstein prosecution, ruling Friday that the presence of reporters could jeopardize the Hollywood heavyweight’s right to a fair trial.
Justice James Burke, after hearing arguments to seal the hearing from both Manhattan prosecutors and the Weinstein defense, opted over the complaints of media lawyers to keep his courtroom closed in the constitutional interests of the accused rapist.
The release of the information at the crux of the hearing would “would have a devastating effect on the defendant’s ability to select a fair and impartial jury,” Burke ruled.
Attorneys for the media immediately went to a state appellate court in a losing fight to gain access. First Department Justice Jeffrey Oing allowed the Friday hearing to proceed with the public and media banned, while leaving the door open for a possible public release of the hearing transcripts and legal briefs.
Media outlets argued that arguments to close the courtroom doors failed to meet the high burden of proving an open hearing would taint Weinstein’s right to a fair trial through the potential for bad publicity.
The hearing is expected to determine what witnesses and evidence from alleged victims who are not part of the case will be admitted to demonstrate his purported propensity for sexual misconduct.
“We are trying to prevent tainted information from going the press, only to be instantly released to the public, permanently destroying Weinstein’s constitutional right to choose from a jury of his peers,” argued one of the attorneys, Marianne Bertuna.
“This criminal case is a matter of immense and legitimate public interest for women and men across this state and across this nation,” added Bertuna, the only female lawyer at a table of five counselors.
Burke, after hearing arguments, noted the “substantial probability that disclosure [of the arguments] will jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office, taking a rare stance in support of the Weinstein legal team, echoed their call for secrecy.
Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said the content of the hearing would expose damaging, previously-unreleased information about Weinstein.
The prosecution was in favor of “minimizing the effects of the prejudicial pretrial publicity,” said Illuzzi, adding that “much” of the hearing’s subject matter “has not been made public yet.”
But the media lawyers argued vociferously against the controversial decision.
“This criminal case is a matter of immense and legitimate public interest for women and men across this state and across this nation,” argued First Amendment lawyer Robert Balin, who represented the News and other organizations challenging the potential sealing,
Balin pushed the idea that the floodgates for bad publicity about Weinstein had long ago been opened.
“It is a matter of public record that more than 80 women have come forward in news interviews, on social media, in publicly filed lawsuits, in books, to tell their stories and relate their allegations” Balin added.
The numerous accusations have been “widely known in the public for more than 18 months now.”
He said other accommodations could be made to protect the identities of alleged victims, suggesting the redaction of their names.
He shot down the argument by Weinstein’s lawyers that the social media culture — and the ability of reporters to do disseminate news in “real time” — is also problematic.
“What I’ve heard is that somehow it is improper for the press and the public to be sitting here and to report news in real time, Balin said. “That is what our constitution envisions — that people observe and participate in our criminal proceedings.”
Weinstein, 67, is slated to stand trial in June in the 2013 rape of an unidentified woman at the Doubletree Hotel on Lexington Ave. He also stands charged with a count of criminal sex act for allegedly forcing oral sex on a menstruating and unwilling Mimi Haleyi, a former production assistant, in 2006.
The fallen Hollywood creep faces a minimum of ten years behind bars on the top count — predatory sexual assault — for an alleged pattern of sexual misconduct.
By: Shayna Jacobs And Larry McShane