During opening statements in Harvey Weinstein’s Los Angeles trial, attorneys for the former Hollywood titan told the jury that Weinstein was innocent. His defense stated that the women with whom Weinstein was sexually involved all agreed to “transactional sex,” in exchange for work in the entertainment industry. They took aim at the trial’s most high-profile witness — Jane Doe #4, Jennifer Siebel Newsom — calling her a “bimbo.”
Siebel Newsom has not yet taken the stand, but is expected to testify in the two-month trial. The filmmaker and the First Partner of California, who is married to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, has accused Weinstein of rape in 2005. At the time, she was an up-and-coming actor and filmmaker.
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Siebel Newsom’s attorney, Elizabeth Fegan, a founding partner at the Chicago-based law firm FeganScott, is representing two women in Weinstein’s trial. Her other client, Ashley Matthau, testified last month that Weinstein masturbated on her in a hotel room in 2003 when she was working as a dancer in his film, “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.”
Fegan declined to discuss Siebel Newsom’s forthcoming allegations, but she condemns the language used by Weinstein’s defense team to describe her client.
“I thought it was insulting,” says Fegan. “Using adjectives like ‘bimbo’ and other over-the-top words to describe the elements, to me, reflects that Harvey doesn’t have facts to support his defense, so they’re going to try and win based on drama and attacking the victims, as opposed to based on the evidence.”
Fegan — who specializes in representing victims of sexual abuse, harassment, discrimination and fraud, and previously led class action lawsuits against Weinstein and also USC during its campus gynecology scandal — says Weinstein’s trial is crucial, even though he is already imprisoned. (Weinstein is currently serving a 23-year sentence, after being convicted of rape and sexual assault in his 2020 trial in New York; he now faces 11 new charges in Los Angeles.)
On the first day in front of the jury, Weinstein’s defense said that their client is the face of #MeToo movement, essentially becoming the fall guy for an entire cultural reset.
“It’s so narcissistic,” Fegen says. “The #MeToo movement existed before Harvey. I think what the #MeToo movement really was about in 2017 was women being able to finally use their voices as a group. It just so happens that Harvey Weinstein is one of the most prolific abusers in Hollywood, and therefore, of course, there was a groundswell of outpouring from women who were abused by him. But that’s a function of his predatory behavior — not of making him a scapegoat.”
In response to Variety’s request for comment on this interview, Weinstein’s spokesperson, Juda Engelmayer, said: “This may indeed be a narcissistic perspective, but the trial and accusations are not about whether being a narcissist is unlawful or illegal or just disagreeable and distasteful. This is, in fact, about placing today’s values, appreciations and progress on actions of yesterdays that were not then considered criminal, and even may have been more widely accepted practices, ideals and notions. To suggest anything different is just intellectually dishonest. Harvey didn’t invent the culture that existed and may even still exist today.”
Here, Fegan talks to Variety about the further significance of Weinstein’s trial and where there is room for reform in the justice system pertaining to sexual assault and harassment.
Why is this trial significant, even though Harvey Weinstein has already been convicted in New York?
Frankly, the risk to Harvey in this trial is higher than it was in the New York trial. There, he was sentenced to 23 years, and here, there’s a very good chance that it would be a life sentence with really no ability to get out early. To me, if there’s a conviction, this is really the nail in the coffin in terms of ensuring that he’s put away for life.
Weinstein is appealing that New York conviction, and the New York Court of Appeals has agreed to hear his case. What are your thoughts on the appeal?
It’s certainly not surprising that they’re appealing, and it does seem like there are potential issues that the appellate court could take up that really no one could have foreseen. But here, the court has been very deliberate, in my mind, and has been very careful in making sure that both sides are able to ask all the questions that they wanted of the jurors and in pre-trial rulings to try and foresee any claims of prejudice by the Weinstein defense, so I’m hopeful that the California judgement wouldn’t face the same kind of appeal.
Does the fact that Harvey is appealing his New York conviction raise the stakes in this current trial?
The New York conviction could be overturned, in which case he would be out on the streets free. We all know that everyone likes a good comeback story, and certainly, we want to make sure that there is no comeback story here for Harvey Weinstein. Also, we know that Harvey left a long line of victims, and it’s really important for those that have the strength and courage to tell their story to be able to do so, and to be able to know that they did their part to make sure that he stays behind bars, no matter what.
You were in the courtroom for opening statements, and I’d imagine you are keeping up with the trial. What do you think about the defense’s strategy?
On the one hand, I’m surprised because this didn’t work for him in New York to attack the women and tear them down. To claim it was consensual when they’re clearly sobbing on the stand, I thought the team would take a different tactic. On the other hand, I’m not surprised at all because he has no other facts, so his defense has to be that that everybody loves him and wanted to use him because he can’t say that all of these incidents didn’t happen. But their over-the-top use of adjectives, and what I would call aggressive questioning of sexual abuse survivors, to me, that’s really off-putting. I think it’s the death knell for them.
Over 100 women have come forward with accusations against Harvey Weinstein, but only a fraction have been able to testify. The statute of limitation laws prohibit many victims from ever being able to pursue legal action. Do you believe there should be reform around these laws?
Federal limitations silence victims and preclude very valid cases from ever seeing the light of day. I do think there needs to be reform in this area. Essentially, limitations are just an arbitrary line drawn in the sand by lawmakers that have nothing to do with the realities of the evidence of any particular case. I think you can see that in this trial so far, the prosecutors have very deliberately put evidence in for each witness, so it’s not just a he-said-she-said situation. In the case of Ashley, for example, they brought her fiancé at the time of the assault and her mother who she had contemporaneous discussions with about the assaults, so it’s not evidence created later; it’s contemporaneous to the time, even though the assault happened some time ago. They’re doing that very deliberately to demonstrate to the jury that you don’t have to have DNA because there are other types of corroborating evidence that exist.
What do you think should be done to change the system?
In my mind, the statute of limitations can’t and doesn’t look at each crime to determine if that kind of corroborating evidence exists. We should leave that discretion in the hands of prosecutors or attorneys to determine if there’s enough evidence to bring a case, and then the judges won’t allow it to go forward if there’s not sufficient evidence. There are a lot of checks and balances to make sure that cases that can’t hold up will never get to a jury. It shouldn’t just be the statute of limitations.
How is your client, Ashley Matthau, feeling after her testimony?
I think that was very, very hard for her. But for her to stand up and defend herself, I think was a very important step for her and her healing process. When most survivors actually go through something like this, they have flashbacks and it’s very difficult. It doesn’t end when you get down off the stand, and sometimes, the trauma is exacerbated. So, she is struggling right now, but I don’t think that that changes the fact that she’s glad that she did it.
She was called as a “prior bad acts” witness. These witnesses were also used in Bill Cosby’s trial and Weinstein’s New York trial, and the defense typically objects to the judge allowing these victims to testify. Why are these witnesses called in sexual assault trials?
The use of “prior bad acts” witnesses is an important and powerful tool for prosecutors. Their testimony can help show that the defendant has a history of similar behaviors. In this case, testimony from these witnesses will help the prosecution establish that Weinstein was a serial predator, using consistent tactics in his assault of the victims.
Statistically speaking, sexual assault cases rarely get prosecuted. Many victims say they want their day in court. Do you hear from clients that testifying can be cathartic?
I have yet to meet a a survivor who is eager to testify. In working with survivors, sometimes it can be touch-and-go up to the very moment when they go to the stand and whether they can actually do it. But there’s no question that it can be part of their healing. Some people will say, “You are finally going to get closure,” and I don’t think sexual abuse survivor ever gets closure, but it can certainly be a point in time for them to take their power back. Being able to stand up there and tell their truth, if they haven’t be heard or validated, can really go a long way to making them feel like they have their voice back.
There is a lot of victim shaming online. Do you think there’s a positive side to social media for victims of sexual assault?
I definitely think that in society, the treatment of sexual assault survivors has changed for the better. It’s certainly far from perfect, but ten years ago, it was, “What did she do to bring this on?” I think there’s a lot less of that now.
How do you think the media changed in recent years, in its coverage of sexual assault?
I think the overall tone, certainly in the mainstream media, has changed. It’s much more focused on, “What did the defendant or what did the perpetrator do?” as opposed to, “What did the victim do to bring this on?” I think it’s gotten better.
Why did your client, Jennifer Siebel Newson, decide to testify?
Jane Doe #4 is going to tell her story on the stand. I’m not authorized to speak about her decision making.
What were your thoughts on the opening statements when Weinstein’s defense used the word “bimbo” to describe your client?
I thought the opening statement was over-the-top dramatic. I thought it was insulting. I thought it was done for the purpose of creating soundbites. Typically, opening statements are supposed to be fact-based and describe the evidence that the jury is going to hear, and then you save your melodramatic moments for closing arguments — that’s why opening statements are statements and closing arguments are arguments. There’s a difference. Using adjectives like “bimbo” and other over-the-top words to describe the elements, to me, reflects that Harvey doesn’t have facts to support his defense, so they’re going to try and win based on drama and attacking the victims, as opposed to based on the evidence. So I thought it was awful.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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