Harvey Weinstein jury carries weight of #MeToo into deliberations

Ed Pilkington in New York
Photograph: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

The jury at Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial in New York have asked to see emails in which the movie mogul highlighted the names of potential accusers and handed them to investigators he employed, to try and silence the women and prevent them going public with their allegations.

Just hours after the seven men and five women of the jury began deliberating their verdict on Tuesday, they began asking the judge at the New York supreme court a series of detailed questions. They wanted to see copies of all emails where “certain women’s names are highlighted in red”.

The request was likely to have been directed particularly at Annabella Sciorra, the Sopranos actor who is one of the central witnesses in the case. She is key to the most serious charge that the Pulp Fiction producer is facing – that he engaged in “predatory sexual assault” against more than one woman, which carries a potential life sentence.

Over the course of the five-week trial, the court heard that Weinstein had run a “red-flag” list of women who he feared might go public with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Emails presented to the jury showed that Sciorra appeared on the list with her name highlighted in red.

Weinstein, 67, instructed an investigator who he employed to look into potential accusers: “The red flags are the first to call.”

The jury has also asked to see a floor plan of Weinstein’s Soho apartment where he is alleged to have forced oral sex on another key witness, Miriam Haley. A former Project Runway production assistant, Haley has accused the disgraced film producer of luring her to the apartment in 2006 where he allegedly forced oral sex on her.

The seven men and five women on the jury have a formidable decision to make in considering whether or not to find Weinstein guilty of rape and sexual assault. Their verdict, which must be unanimous, could have monumental consequences.

If they find Weinstein guilty he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Related: 'Master of his universe': Weinstein saw women as disposable, prosecutor says

If they acquit, the failure to secure a conviction against a man who has been accused of alleged sexual misconduct by more than 100 women will send waves of shock, anger and dismay throughout the fledgling #MeToo cause that was largely triggered by revelations involving Weinstein in 2017.

The jury’s inquiry about the red-highlighted names and the footprint of Weinstein’s apartment suggest they are following the judge’s instructions and beginning with the first of the five counts the defendant is facing: predatory sexual assault. For a conviction on this count, the jury would have to find Weinstein guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of sexually attacking both Haley and Sciorra.

Sciorra gave harrowing testimony in which she described allegedly having her hands pinned above her head as she was held down on a bed and violently raped in her Gramercy Park apartment in the winter of 1993-94.

If the jury finds Weinstein not guilty on the Sciorra part of the charge, they will then go on to consider Haley’s allegations on their own merits, and can convict Weinstein for attacking her under count two – criminal sexual act. That carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.

Once Haley’s testimony is deliberated, the jury has been instructed to move on to the rape allegations raised by the second of the two main accusers in the case. This relates to a witness who the Guardian is not naming because her wishes over identification are not known.

Related: Donna Rotunno: the legal Rottweiler leading Harvey Weinstein’s defense

She alleges she was raped by Weinstein in a New York hotel, for which he has been charged with rape in the first and third degrees, which carry a maximum sentence of 25 years.

Once again, the jury will begin by considering the woman’s rape accusations alongside those of Sciorra. If Weinstein is found guilty of both, the jury will convict him on count three – another charge of predatory sexual assault.

If Sciorra’s allegations fall, then again jurors will move on to consider the unnamed woman’s rape claims on their own merits. In counts four and five, Weinstein could be found guilty either of rape in the first or the third degree.

The charge sheet makes for complicated parsing. Within an hour of being sent out of the courtroom to begin deliberations, the jury was brought back in again, having sent a series of questions to Burke seeking clarification.

Before the jury was brought into court on Tuesday, a furious row erupted between the two teams of lawyers. A prosecutor accused Weinstein’s lead defense lawyer, Donna Rotunno, of jury tampering by publishing an opinion article in Newsweek over the weekend.

In the article, Rotunno repeated the complaint made by the defense several times in the course of the trial: that the proceedings were rigged against the defendant. She railed at hostile media coverage, including mockery of Weinstein’s arriving in court each day leaning on a walking frame.

In a highly unusual move, Rotunno went on to address individual members of the Weinstein jury directly.

“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,” she wrote. “Harvey Weinstein is innocent.”

The lead prosecutor, Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, ripped into Rotunno. “It is completely, 100%, inappropriate behavior that borders on tampering with the jury,” she said.

Rotunno, who has made a number of extremely controversial comments in the course of the trial and has been admonished by the judge on numerous occasions not to speak to the media, insisted that her article was “not a letter to the jury, it is an op-ed of my feelings about the jury system as a whole”.

The judge presiding over the trial at the New York supreme court, James Burke, told Rotunno pointedly: “I would caution you about the tentacles of your public relations juggernaut.”

  • In the US, Rainn offers support at 800-656-4673 or by chat at Rainn.org. In the UK, the rape crisis national freephone helpline is at 0808-802-9999. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800-737-7328) or 1800respect.org.au. Other international helplines can be found at Ibiblio.org.