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Harvey Weinstein’s legal team now includes a pair of lawyers from Chicago, and despite a looming September sexual assault trial, experts say the roster change likely won’t hurt his defense.
Donna Rotunno and Damon Cheronis this week informed the court they were joining Weinstein’s team, after former Casey Anthony attorney Jose Baez announced his departure earlier this month. A February 2018 issue of Chicago magazine described former prosecutor Rotunno as a “hero” to male clients accused of sexual assault, and said she’s handled more than 40 sexual misconduct-related cases over the past decade and a half. Weinstein’s legal team has previously included Hollywood power lawyer Benjamin Brafman, Harvard Law professor Ron Sullivan, ex-Kobe Bryant lawyer Pamela Mackey and former prosecutor Duncan Levin.
Weinstein makes headlines every time someone on his legal team comes or goes, but criminal law experts say such changes really aren’t uncommon.
“This happens in a lot of cases,” says Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “They just don’t get as much public scrutiny.” Still, Levinson, a former prosecutor who teaches criminal law and procedure, said it can be difficult to keep focus with so many moving parts — and in a high-profile case public perception is also a challenge. “You have to worry about the messaging to the outside world,” she says. “There may be no problem at all, but everyone starts reading the tea leaves.”
Bill Cosby also had a rotating cast of attorneys, including Brian McMonagle who represented the comedian in his 2017 trial, which ended in a hung jury. He’s been impressed with the quality of the lawyers Weinstein has hired, but thinks it’s time for him to make sure his legal team sticks. “It’s getting to a point where, at least superficially, it looks like it’s a pattern,” he says. “Sometimes the grass isn’t greener. The time has really come for him to not only obtain counsel but to receive it. To say ‘I’ve got a lawyer, now it’s time to listen to him or her.'”
Thomas Mesereau, who also represented Cosby and secured an acquittal for Michael Jackson in 2005, says famous, powerful people are often used to being in control and that can lead to challenging relationships with criminal lawyers. “Sometimes celebrities can be very demanding and hands on,” he says. “People who’ve been in the celebrity world and have been quite successful at what they do can have a difficult time taking a back seat and being in a position where they’re so vulnerable.”
Mesereau adds that many high-profile people will consult third parties to get their take on a situation, which can cause them to doubt the advice they’re getting from their actual legal team. “Criminal defense is an art, not a science,” he says. “It sometimes makes a celebrity paranoid about whether he’s getting the right advice.”
Despite any perceived or real challenges that Weinstein presents, McMonagle says countless attorneys would be champing at the bit to take his case — which he thinks seems “extremely defensible.” Would he represent him? “Absolutely.”
“It’s become the centerpiece of the #MeToo movement,” McMonagle says. “There are cases like this across the country and this is going to be the one that’s looked at as a watershed. It’s going to be an important case in terms of how these prosecutions go forward in the future.”
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