Harvey Weinstein was depicted by Manhattan prosecutors as a violent sexual predator who manipulated vulnerable women at the start of a criminal trial that could send the disgraced Hollywood mogul to prison for life.
The trial in New York marks the culmination of assault claims against the formerly powerful producer that sparked the Me Too movement.
In a scathing two-hour opening argument, Manhattan assistant district attorney Meghan Hast described in graphic detail how Mr Weinstein cornered women in hotel rooms and bathrooms, physically restrained them and administered injections in his genitals before raping and assaulting them, over the course of decades.
“That man seated right there was not just a titan in Hollywood,” Ms Hast declared, pointing to Mr Weinstein. “He was a rapist.”
Mr Weinstein, who limped into court holding on to the arm of an assistant, appeared in good spirits before the session began, smiling and chatting with his lawyers. Once Ms Hast began her argument, Mr Weinstein took notes and repeatedly shook his head, whispering to his lawyer.
Mr Weinstein faces five charges including rape and predatory sexual assault — which in New York carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The charges relate to two alleged incidents: raping one woman in 2013 and forcing oral sex on another in 2006. Mr Weinstein denies the charges.
More than 80 women, including the actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, have over the past two years accused Mr Weinstein of sexual abuse.
The criminal trial in Manhattan state court is fairly narrow, focusing only on the claims of these two women. The vast majority of claims against Mr Weinstein did not qualify for this trial — some incidents had taken place too long ago to be tried in court, while others fell outside of New York’s jurisdiction.
Ms Hast on Wednesday laid out the accounts of six women, including The Sopranos actress Annabella Sciorra, who claim to have been assaulted by Mr Weinstein. Ms Sciorra alleged that Mr Weinstein raped her in 1993, but her allegations are too old to prosecute; the DA is hoping the extra witnesses will establish a pattern of behaviour.
“Different women, from different places, decades apart, yet the same crime,” Ms Hast told the 12 jurors.
The prosecutors told jurors that Mr Weinstein forced himself into Ms Sciorra’s hotel room, pinned her down on to the bed and raped her. “This man, close to 6 feet tall and nearly 300 pounds, pushed past the 110 pound Annabella,” she said, while a television in the courtroom displayed a photo of Mr Weinstein, smiling in a suit.
She detailed encounters between Mr Weinstein and other women, including an aspiring actress, a struggling production assistant and a waitress. According to the prosecution, Mr Weinstein used his power to manipulate vulnerable women, dangling parts in films to lure them in.
Mr Weinstein’s side argues that these women were using him for his connections and that the sexual encounters were consensual. Damon Cheronis, his defence lawyer, cited evidence of friendly emails and text messages the women sent to Mr Weinstein.
“You are going to see an actual loving relationship between [one of the accusers] and Harvey Weinstein based on hundreds of emails,” Mr Cheronis said. “And you are going to ask yourself, what is going on? You’re going to say: oh my God, Harvey Weinstein is innocent.”
Mr Cheronis also argued that the women did not report these incidents to the police, and many of them continued to contact Mr Weinstein.
Ms Hast, the prosecutor, pleaded for the jurors to “really listen” to the women who will testify. “Almost all victims are assaulted by someone they know, don’t resist, don’t immediately report their assault, and reach back out to their attacker,” she told jurors.
Women’s rights activists have positioned this trial as crucial in establishing a precedent for future abuse cases.
The high-profile trial, expected to last for about two months, has already been rife with drama. The court summoned about 2,000 people, including the supermodel Gigi Hadid, to build a jury of 12 with three alternates. Many potential jurors were dismissed after telling the court they were biased against Mr Weinstein. Protests have raged outside the Manhattan court, while hundreds of journalists have shown up to cover the case.
Justice James Burke has established a stern tone in the courtroom, reprimanding both sides for filing excessive motions and scolding Mr Weinstein for using his phone in the courtroom. Mr Burke has tried to downplay the frenzy surrounding the trial. “This trial is not a referendum on the Me Too movement,” he told potential jurors.
Mr Weinstein, 67, has arrived in court in recent weeks looking feeble after having back surgery last month. The former head of Miramax gave a bizarre tabloid interview from the hospital last month, complaining that he feels like “the forgotten man” and he should be remembered for “making more movies directed by women than any film-maker”.
Separately, Mr Weinstein and his bankrupt film studio in December agreed in principle a $45m settlement with a group of more than 30 women who had accused him of sexual assault, putting an end to practically all potential civil law suits against him.
He also faces criminal charges of rape and sexual assault in Los Angeles.