Weinstein Lawyer’s Op-Ed Is an Op-Ed Too Far

Thom Weidlich 02.20.20


February, apparently, is crisis op-ed month. Last week we wrote about what we deemed to be a wrongheaded newspaper essay by one of the parents who pleaded guilty in the college-admissions scandal. This week brought another controversial op-ed that was also a communications mistake.

This raises the question of how forceful one can be in the court of public opinion — especially given that the latest op-ed caused the judge in the case to issue a gag order.

On Tuesday this week the New York jury in the Harvey Weinstein rape trial began its deliberations. The trial has been contentious, to say the least. One of the famed movie producer’s lawyers, Donna Rotunno, has been particularly high-profile, doing many TV interviews. Rotunno, based in Chicago, has criticized the #MeToo movement. “I think that women need to be heard, which is different than women needing to be believed,” she told NPR last month.

On Sunday, two days before deliberations began, she published an op-ed in Newsweek essentially calling on the jurors to acquit 67-year-old Weinstein (pictured). It was ill advised to do that at such a sensitive time in the case.

I implore the members of this jury to do what they know is right.

— Harvey Weinstein lawyer Donna Rotunno

The essay did not go unnoticed by the prosecutors. When they returned to Judge James Burke’s courtroom after the Presidents Day break, it was one of the first things they brought up. Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told the judge the op-ed bordered on jury tampering, according to the New York Law Journals Michael Riccardi.

Rotunno responded that the op-ed, headlined “Jurors in My Client Harvey Weinstein’s Case Must Look Past the Headlines,” was “one small piece” against “a large media attack on Mr. Weinstein every single day.”

Zip It

The prosecutor thought the timing was suspect. The judge ordered all the lawyers to zip it until we have a verdict.

So what does the op-ed say? After a few hosannas about the U.S. legal system, Rotunno says juries must cut through “the noise of a media and public intent on injecting their narratives into the courtroom.” She notes that jurors in such high-profile trials really can’t avoid the press coverage. She decries unflattering media portraits of Weinstein, “all designed to pre-determine his guilt.”

She then addresses the jury directly: “I expect a fair and impartial jury for Mr. Weinstein and every other American. 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.”

It’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between explaining your litigation story to the court of public opinion and not upsetting the trial judge. This ploy probably crossed that line.

Photo Credit: Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock

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