Weinstein is on the market for a ‘dream team’ defence

Weinstein is on the market for a ‘dream team’ defence
NEW YORK — Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial in New York will be perhaps the biggest and most important production of his lifetime.

Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul known for his ego and tenacity, parted ways with his defence lawyer Benjamin Brafman last week and is working fast to assemble a “dream team” of powerhouse trial lawyers to handle his sexual assault case — a cast that may feature a woman as his lead counsel, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Movie producer Harvey Weinstein, left, arrives at Manhattan Supreme Court in New York with his former lawyer Benjamin Brafman for a hearing on whether to grant or deny a motion to drop criminal sex assault charges against Weinstein on Dec. 20, 2018.  (TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Weinstein’s break from Brafman followed weeks of intense arguing between the two. It appeared to reflect a change in Weinstein. He had spent the past year largely in hiding after an avalanche of accusations from women about sexual harassment and assault made him the symbol of the #MeToo movement. During that time, he placed his entire faith in Brafman — a pugnacious former prosecutor at home in the city’s criminal courts — to speak for him on the courthouse steps and to fight the sex-crime charges brought by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

But now Weinstein appears to be reasserting control over his defence — using the template set out by O.J. Simpson in his murder trial in 1995 — and assembling a team of legal experts. One person familiar with Weinstein’s thinking said he is “looking for an experienced woman” to defend him against allegations of rape and sexual assault.

“I don’t find it unusual from a person who is Harvey Weinstein,” said Barbara S. Barron, a former prosecutor who teaches law at Hofstra University. “He wants to have a woman on his defence team — I think that’s perfectly aligned with what we know about him.”

Recently Weinstein reached out to three women who are highly respected trial lawyers in New York: Susan Necheles, Susan Brune and Isabelle Kirshner, according to people familiar with the matter.

Manhattan DA drops part of Weinstein case

Kirshner declined to say whether she had met with Weinstein but said his search made sense. “It can’t hurt,” she said. “If I were in his position, I would want a woman on my team.”

Kirshner represented Eric Schneiderman, the former New York attorney general, against allegations that he assaulted multiple women, and defended Dr. Robert Hadden, a Manhattan gynecologist who pleaded guilty in 2016 to sexually assaulting his patients.

Having a woman on Weinstein’s team could help to soften the image of a man who has become the “poster boy for misogyny in the U.S.,” said Daniel R. Alonso, a former chief assistant to Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance.

Weinstein began to make calls to other lawyers last month after Justice James Burke rejected Brafman’s argument that the charges should be dismissed, one person familiar with the case said.

Weinstein’s plan was to create a team of professionals with a variety of specialities, similar to the group Simpson assembled to win an acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife. Weinstein, the person said, did not believe Brafman could handle the trial on his own.

“You had two strong personalities who both know how things should get done,” a second person with knowledge of the discussions said. “There’s only one captain of a ship.”

But Brafman, who is considered to be among the best trial lawyers in New York City, wanted veto power over who could join the “dream team,” and Weinstein disagreed, a third person familiar with the matter said.

The men, who had squabbled before their public split, had begun to argue more intensely in recent weeks.

“They were going to kill each other,” said the person with knowledge of their heated exchanges.

But Weinstein and Brafman said in a joint statement, “There were no arguments, only philosophical differences, and we both have immense respect for one another’s talents, and appreciate the time we worked together.”

On Thursday, Brafman notified the court of his desire to withdraw from the case. Burke will make a decision on the matter Friday. Weinstein is expected to “introduce” his new defence team Monday.

Some defence lawyers questioned why Weinstein would sever ties with Brafman just a few months before his trial begins in May and after his lawyer had gotten one of the charges against him dismissed in October.

At that point, the case appeared to be fraying, and Brafman continued to pile on, releasing emails between Weinstein and his two remaining accusers in a relentless attempt to undermine their credibility.

“There are a lot of great lawyers in Manhattan,” said Alonso, an executive with Exiger, a compliance and investigations firm. “I can’t think of anyone better than Benjamin Brafman as a criminal defence lawyer in New York County.”

Another lawyer, Mark A. Bederow, said Weinstein had “one of the best attorneys imaginable.”

But finding a new lawyer likely will not be difficult for Weinstein, Bederow said, because of the high-profile and challenging nature of the case.

“This is what you do,” he said. “Someone is accused of a crime, there are due-process rights and credible defences. It appears to be a very triable case.”

Other people Weinstein has reached out to include Duncan Levin, a former state and federal prosecutor, and Jeffrey Lichtman, who represents Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the infamous drug lord known as El Chapo.

Lichtman said he met with Weinstein nearly two weeks ago.

“He’s warm and very funny,” he said. “He’s very smart and most importantly I’m convinced of his innocence.”
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