Harvey Weinstein trial: Potential juror speaks of 'disgust'

BY BBC.COM - Jan 16, 2020 at 6:10pm 100

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Harvey Weinstein is about to go on trial - and 12 men and women in New York will be responsible for determining whether he is guilty.

Jury selection is currently under way, with the former Hollywood producer accused of five charges, including rape and predatory sexual assault relating to two alleged victims.

But finding impartial juries for such a high-profile case - one that galvanised the #MeToo movement across the world - could be difficult.

The court has summoned 2,000 potential jurors for the case - about five times more than normal - just to find 12 suitable regular jurors and six alternate jurors.

And on the very first day of jury selection, a third of the potential jurors present were dismissed outright, after telling the judge they did not think they could be impartial.

"The first few days of jury selection has already underscored just how challenging it's going to be," Valerie Hans, a law professor and jury expert at Cornell University says.

"When you have large numbers of people saying they can't be impartial, it's a wakeup call - because most people think of themselves as generally fair."

Jury selection often takes no more than a few hours, or a day or two.

But the process can be much more drawn out, particularly in high-profile trials. In the O.J. Simpson murder trial, it took almost 11 weeks for a jury to be selected.

The judge in the Harvey Weinstein trial has allocated two weeks for jury selection, while the entire trial is expected to last up to two months - which means many potential jurors will be put off by the amount of time required.

And in this case, "claims have been made against Weinstein by very high profile, high visibility people" - there has been "extensive publicity" and a high number of claims against him, which could make jury selection even more difficult, Prof Hans said.

Xorje Olivares, who attended the court on 8 January as a prospective juror, was one of the dozens of people who ruled themselves out.

He told the BBC his support for the #MeToo movement, and the fact he knew several people who were sexual assault survivors, meant he felt he could not be impartial.

"I personally felt nothing but disgust... even being in the same room as him, I just felt very icky," Mr Olivares, who hosts a radio show, said. "I knew that I had these biased views, and I would bring them to the case."

On the other hand, supermodel Gigi Hadid - who had also reported for jury duty - told the court she could remain impartial, despite having met Weinstein and actress Salma Hayek, one of the trial's potential witnesses.

Hadid, who lives in Manhattan and studied criminal psychology, told the judge she would "keep an open mind on the facts" if selected - but she was dismissed on Thursday, 16 January, as the jury pool was whittled down.

How is the jury being selected - and what sort of jurors will Weinstein's lawyers want?

Although it's known as jury selection, it's actually a process of elimination.

Many prospective jurors are being dismissed from the outset - either because they say they cannot be impartial, or because they have scheduling conflicts.

Those remaining are asked to complete a questionnaire, where they are asked about their education, prior jury service, whether they know people working in the entertainment industry, and whether they have been a victim of physical or sexual abuse.

Then, lawyers for both sides can question them in court, and get potential jurors dismissed if the judge agrees that they are not impartial - this is known as a challenge for cause.

In the US, lawyers are also allowed to remove a number of potential jurors without giving a reason (known as a peremptory challenge), as long as it isn't on the basis of ethnicity or gender.

Peremptory challenges are controversial to some - the UK abolished them in 1988 - because critics believe that lawyers can try to skew juries in a particular way and a randomly selected jury is fairer.

However, in the US, they're considered an important part of the constitutional right to trial by an impartial jury.

In Mr Weinstein's trial, lawyers on each side are allowed to dismiss up to 20 potential regular jurors, says Prof Hans. Lawyers from both sides will try to establish a jury that they believe will be more favourable to their side.