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Harvey Weinstein arrives at court ahead of sex assault trial

Harvey Weinstein arrives at New York court, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, in New York. The disgraced movie mogul faces allegations of rape and sexual assault. Jury selection begins this week. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

By TOM HAYS and MICHAEL R. SISAK Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Harvey Weinstein and several of the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct converged Monday at the New York City courthouse where a judge and his lawyers handled the final preparations for his high-stakes trial on charges of rape and assault.

Weinstein, 67, entered the building leaning on a walker following a recent back surgery, sporting a dark suit and disheveled hair. When asked outside the courtroom how his back felt, Weinstein responded with a thin smile and a so-so gesture with his hand.

Inside, his lawyers and prosecutors spent the morning sparring about procedural matters, including how to keep publicity surrounding the trial from influencing the jury’s thinking. The judge denied a motion to sequester jurors throughout the course of the trial.

Across the street, actresses and other women who say they were sexually harassed or assaulted by Weinstein dismissed him as a villain undeserving of anyone’s pity.

“He looked cowardly. He wouldn’t look at us. He wouldn’t make eye contact,” said Sarah Ann Masse, a performer and writer who said Weinstein once sexually harassed her in his underwear during a job interview. “This trial is a cultural reckoning regardless of its legal outcome,” she said.

The court hearing was brief and Weinstein departed in an SUV around 10:45 a.m.

Jury selection in the trial will start Tuesday, more than two years since the allegations first came to widespread public attention and catalyzed the #MeToo movement.

Weinstein’s lead lawyer, Donna Rotunno, said she was hopeful a fair jury could be found that wouldn’t pre-judge the case.

“In this great country, you are innocent until proven guilty,” she told reporters outside the courthouse.

Weinstein faces allegations that he raped one woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and performed a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006.

He has pleaded not guilty and says any sexual activity was consensual. If he’s convicted of the most serious charges against him, two counts of predatory sexual assault, Weinstein faces a mandatory life sentence.

For that to happen, prosecutors must demonstrate Weinstein had a habit of violating women, beyond the two directly involved in the encounters in which he’s charged. To that end, they plan to call actress Annabella Sciorra, who says Weinstein forced himself inside her Manhattan apartment in 1993 or 1994 and raped her after she starred in a film for his movie studio.

They also want jurors to hear from some of the more than 75 women who have come forward publicly to accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to assault. The first allegations were brought to light by The New York Times and The New Yorker in October 2017.

The judge hasn’t said how many other accusers will be allowed to testify.

Speaking outside the courthouse as proceedings began, a group of Weinstein’s accusers spoke with reporters, including Masse, the actresses Rosanna Arquette, Dominique Huett and Rose McGowan, model Paula Williams, Louise Godbold and the actress and journalist Lauren Sivan.

McGowan thanked the women who will testify during the trial as alleged victims for representing many more women who may never get their day in court.

“They are standing for us, and I am immensely proud of them,” she said. “We didn’t have our day. But hopefully they will. Their victory will be our victory. Their loss will be our loss.”

Rotunno has argued the case is weak and said she plans to aggressively cross-examine the accusers.

Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi immediately set a combative tone by referring to Weinstein as a “predator,” drawing an objecton from the defense table.

The lawyers also clashed after prosecutors asked the judge to bar all attorneys in the trial from speaking about the evidence outside court. Illuzzi accused Rotunno of “degrading and humiliating and putting down our witnesses” in statements to the press leading up to the trial.

“I have not degraded anyone,” Rotunno responded.

The judge refused to issue a gag order, but told both sides: “Leave the witnesses alone, OK? Don’t talk about them in any way.”

The judge also barred the defense from calling detective Nicholas DiGaudio as a witness. DiGaudio was removed the investigation amid allegations he had withheld evidence that could have helped defend Weinstein.

Picking a jury for Weinstein’s trial could take a while, in part because immense media attention on the case could mean some potential jurors already have their minds made up. Weinstein’s lawyers tried to get the trial moved out of Manhattan, but a court rejected that.