Judge keeps Harvey Weinstein pre-trial hearing secret despite media pleas

By Michael R Sisak, Associated Press

An important pre-trial hearing in Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault case was played out in secret, after a judge ruled against news organisations fighting to keep the courtroom open.

Both the prosecution and defence asked that the hearing, which would deal with trial strategy and potential witnesses, be held behind closed doors.

Manhattan judge James Burke said closing the courtroom to the press and public was “the only means available to avoid the tainting of the jury pool”.

He said on Friday that preserving the 67-year-old former movie mogul’s right to a fair trial is paramount to the press’ right of access to court proceedings, and that coverage of the hearing, which would deal with material that “is prejudicial to the defendant and is highly inflammatory”, would serve no purpose but to stir negative public sentiment toward Weinstein.

Mr Burke also denied the media organisations’ request to delay the hearing so they would have time to appeal.

Their lawyers were asking an appeals court to halt the proceeding.

After the closed-door session, a discussion of procedural matters was expected to unfold in open court.

The ruling came after prosecutors said they wanted to protect Weinstein’s right to a fair trial and shield the identities of women who have accused him of wrongdoing.

Friday’s hearing was expected to focus on some of the dozens of women who have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct but whose allegations haven’t led to criminal charges.

“We believe it is prudent” to close the court, Manhattan assistant district attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said.

Harvey Weinstein, second from right, denies wrongdoing (Richard Drew/AP)

Weinstein’s lawyers said news coverage could influence potential jurors.

“The court cannot be complicit with the press in denying the defendant’s right to a fair trial,” Weinstein lawyer Marianne Bertuna said.

Lawyers for the news organisations said the prosecution and defence arguments did not meet the high legal standard for banning the media and the public.

Weinstein’s case is “a matter of immense and legitimate public interest”, and the allegations against him are already widely known, said Robert Balin, a lawyer representing the news organisations.

The sides asking for the courtroom to be closed are suggesting that “somehow it is improper for the press and the public to be sitting here and report news in real time”, even though that right is guaranteed by the Constitution, Mr Balin argued.

A lawyer for Court TV and a reporter from New York magazine also argued in favour of keeping the courtroom open.

Weinstein himself was quiet as he arrived at court.

Asked how he was doing, he just nodded.

He is charged with raping an unidentified female acquaintance in his Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006.

Weinstein has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex.

He pleaded not guilty and is free on one million dollars bail with his trial scheduled to begin June 3.

Friday’s hearing was to focus on a prosecution request to have some of his other accusers give evidence.

Prosecutors want to show that Weinstein has allegedly had a history of violating women.

Suburban Philadelphia prosecutors used that strategy last year in convicting actor and comedian Bill Cosby at his sexual assault retrial near Philadelphia.

Media laywer Robert Balin (Richard Drew/AP)

Hearings pertaining to such witnesses in that case were not closed to the media or public.

Perhaps anticipating an onslaught of accusers taking the witness box, Weinstein lawyer Jose Baez sent a letter this week to the lawyer for one of them, asking for emails he says show the woman acknowledged she had a consensual relationship with Weinstein.

Mr Balin argued in a court filing his week that holding the hearing behind closed doors would do nothing to safeguard Weinstein’s right to a fair trial because allegations against him from more than 80 women have already been widely reported.

Many of those women, such as actresses Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, have agreed to be identified publicly.

“Clearly, there is no rational basis, let alone ‘compelling circumstances’, that could justify the parties’ effort to suppress this information now that it is in the public domain as a result of intensive news reporting,” Mr Balin wrote in the filing.

Mr Balin called closing the courtroom an “extreme remedy” and argued that, as much as possible, the hearing should be held in open court.

The news organisations are also requesting that documents filed under seal in the case be made public and that all future filings, even ones made under seal, be listed so that “the public and press receive prompt notice that such materials exist”.