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Weinstein attorney Donna Rotunno dishes on 'celebrity victimhood' in #MeToo era

Stephanie Pagones

The twelve jurors and three alternates were selected by the close of Harvey Weinstein’s Friday in court, setting the stage for what would soon be an estimated six weeks-long rape and sexual assault trial featuring Hollywood stars, civil rights advocacy and, surely, drama.

It had been two weeks of celebrity sightings – whether inside the courtroom or in front of the New York courthouse – bickering between defense attorneys and prosecutors and a virtual revolving door of roughly 680 potential jurors including the model Gigi Hadid, who wasn't chosen.

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“It went as well as it could have under those circumstances,” Weinstein’s lead attorney, Donna Rotunno, told FOX Business just hours after court on Friday. “I always say that when the defense takes on a case, you start off every case down 21-to-nothing. That’s the nature of the game.”

Weinstein, 67, is accused of raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and sexually assaulting another in 2006. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

The once-feared former studio boss behind such Oscar winners as "Pulp Fiction" and "Shakespeare in Love" has said any sexual activity was consensual. The initial claims against him in October 2017, however, fueled a barrage of additional accusations that drove the rise of the #MeToo movement, which called out sexual misconduct, particularly among the powerful and famous.

Coming less than a year after the election of an American president who himself had been accused of inappropriate sexual advances, the Weinstein case was followed by allegations against high-profile personalities from casino mogul Steve Wynn, who stepped down from the company that bears his name, to television personality Charlie Rose, who was fired by CBS and PBS.

Last week, California prosecutors announced a new set of charges against Weinstein -- including forcible rape, sexual penetration by use of force and sexual battery -- in connection with two reported incidents in the course of as many days.

Prosecutors in Los Angeles County accused the movie producer of forcing himself into an unidentified female victim’s hotel room on Feb. 18, 2013, and raping her, according to a statement. He's also accused of assaulting a different woman in a Beverly Hills hotel room a day later.

Despite the defense team's multiple attempts to have the case moved out of New York City, as well as requests to interview potential jurors in private and one to have the judge removed, their efforts were largely unsuccessful.

Opening statements are expected to begin Wednesday.

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Amid widespread media coverage and the pressure attached to the case's outcome, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge James Burke at one point warned potential jurors: “This trial is not a referendum on the #MeToo movement.”

Five women and seven men will make up the jury. Of the dozen, four people – one man and three women – are African-American, while a fourth woman is African-American and Latino, ABC News reported. Two women and one man will serve as alternates.

Much of Thursday and Friday were spent with Weinstein’s defense team, led by Rotunno, sparring with prosecutors such as lead attorney Joan Illuzzi – and vice versa – over the ages, genders and races of the potential jurors.

Rotunno came down on assistant district attorney Illuzzi for largely rejecting men as prospective jury members, while the prosecutor complained to the judge that the defense was excluding young, white women.

“He has eliminated every single young, white female from both panels,” Illuzzi said, referring to one of Weinstein’s attorneys, according to Variety.

Rotunno was called out for arguing against a white, female juror because she neglected to inform the court that she was writing a book based on “assumptions about women in the workplace,” according to the report.

The woman was ultimately designated Juror No. 11, Rotunno told FOX Business.

“She did not disclose that she is writing a book called ‘The Age of Consent’ that deals with many issues that this trial is going to address,” Rotunno said during the call. “We did what we could with the constraints that were put on us, and you know, hopefully, we have a fair jury.”

Rotunno took the reins as Weinstein's lead attorney in July and was joined by colleague and fellow attorney Damon Cheronis.

“I chose to represent Harvey Weinstein because I think these are the types of cases that lawyers that do what I do live for,” Rotunno said shortly after she joined the legal team, which had already included Arthur Aidala.

The Chicago-based attorney is no stranger to defending men in sexual assault cases, nor is she new to high-profile cases of a sensitive nature.

“In a case like this,” she said,” the deck is stacked against you even more – given media presence, given the pressure on the [district attorney's] office to convict… there's political pressure, there's social pressure, there are the pressures of the movement.”

The #MeToo movement is a topic Rotunno has not shied away from, despite representing a man who, according to a report by The Cut, has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 100 women. Several accusers, many of whom are celebrities, are expected to testify.

Rotunno believes the sheer number of accusers lends credence to her arguments in defense of Weinstein.

In some ways, the notion of #MeToo leaves women “feeling like you're a part of something," she said.

"What happens is you might have a memory or a recollection of something that now morphs into something else… there's almost like a celebrity victimhood status now. People join movements and they say, ‘Oh, well, #BelieveAllWomen. Well, OK, if we're going to believe all women, then I can say whatever I want.’”

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She called the #MeToo movement “dangerous,” a statement she previously made when being interviewed for a recent New York Times article. “I have to look at #MeToo through the lens of a criminal defense attorney because that's the way #MeToo is affecting my client in this situation," she told FOX Business.

“I believe in the justice system. I believe everyone has a right to the presumption of innocence and everyone has a right to a fair trial and due process,” she said. “And that's what we lose in social movements – people get stripped of their rights, whether it's inadvertent or not ... That's just not the way our system of justice is. That's not what it’s founded on.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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