Deplorable defense

Donna Rotunno’s victim-blaming defense only further implies Harvey Weinstein’s guilt


Illustration by Sarah Chamberlin

Drawing of Harvey Weinstein leaving court with his lawyer, Donna Rotunno.


*This column contains sensitive content about sexual assault which may be triggering.

Harvey Weinstein is sitting in Rikers Island jail right now, awaiting a March 11 sentencing for two felony sex crimes. 

But Weinstein’s conviction isn’t just a vindication or recognition of his victims’ experiences. 

It’s also a rejection of the disgusting tactics his lawyers employed to defend him.

In 1971, Weinstein wrote opinion pieces for The Spectrum. One piece was about a fictional man who abused women.

Now, nearly 50 years later, my piece is about him –– a man who actually abused women.

The jury –– seven men and five women –– found Weinstein guilty of third-degree rape and a criminal sex act, despite his lawyer Donna Rotunno’s efforts to victim-blame Weinstein’s way into innocence. Rotunno wasn’t alone, Weinstein’s defense team included Damon Cheronis and Arthur Aidala. 

Rotunno, in an interview with The New York Times, said when Weinstein first reached out to her, “he was really interested in speaking to a female lawyer, and I said I thought that was a good idea for him.”

But you didn’t fool me, Donna. I think we all know Weinstein didn’t seek out your opinion because of his respect for a woman’s perspective. Perhaps it had more to do with your particular expertise in defending men accused of assault, and your willingness to use your identity to their advantage. 

Defending a client is a lawyer’s job, I understand that. But Rotunno’s tactics, along with her remark that she has never been sexually assaulted because she “would never put [herself] in that position,” are tired and dangerous. 

Victim blaming, coupled with the insinuation that Rotunno hasn’t been assaulted because she’s too smart to be assaulted, is plain ignorant. 

People like Rotunno, and especially women like Rotunno, show just how far we still have to go before the voices of survivors are heard, respected and believed.

The Weinstein case wasn’t Rotunno’s first rodeo –– she specializes in defending men accused of sex crimes and has defended as many as 40 in other cases. Her reasoning is that when the accused are acquitted, their reputations are nearly irreparable. 

And I’m certain she’s right. To be accused of such atrocities while innocent must be a devastating ordeal. This is why “innocent until proven guilty” is important, and why everyone has the right to speak their truth, even Harvey Weinstein. 

Yusef Salaam spoke at UB Monday about how a false rape accusation cost him six years of his childhood spent in prison, and nearly cost him his life. (In Salaam’s case, the rape wasn’t falsely reported, he was wrongfully targeted.) 

But only 2-10% of sexual assault reports are false, while roughly 63% of assaults aren’t reported at all. 

Rotunno went on to argue in court that the women testifying couldn’t have been assaulted because they had consensual sexual encounters at various points in their relationships, and remained in contact with him.

She also said that if she was a man who was going to have sex with a woman, she would have them sign a consent form first.

If Consent 101 was a class, Rotunno would fail it. 

Because no matter how many times two people engage in consensual sex, “no” means “no.” If people start having sex and someone changes their mind, that’s no longer consensual. If people agree to have sex but someone engages in an act the other person isn’t okay with, that’s no longer consensual. 

If someone does not agree to a sexual act, that means it isn’t consensual. 

End of story.

Rotunno also relied on the fact that Weinstein’s victims agreed to have sex with him after their alleged assaults.

But Weinstein had control of these women’s lives, their careers and reputations. If they said no, if they didn’t agree to continue contact or to have sex with him, who’s to say he wouldn’t have used his influence to ruin their lives? 

And for assault victims, those possibilities seem endless.

But Rotunno doesn’t care. 

And if you were worried about how Weinstien is handling the charges, don’t. “He took it like a man,” according to Rotunno.

She truly has a way with words, which she showcased in an opinion piece directed toward jurors days before their final decision.

She asked jurors to remain impartial, stating that Weinstein never had a chance, as all jurors knew who he was and –– likely –– had opinions on his guilt before the trial. 

Rotunno argued the following: “The mocking of Mr. Weinstein’s walker, the unflattering courtroom-artist sketches of his body, the countless critical op-eds and biased stories and the convenient timing of the politically-motivated charges in Los Angeles were all designed to pre-determine his guilt.”

I get it, no one wants to look fat in their courtroom photos while on trial for five sexual assault charges. 

But this is the only time Rotunno defended anyone’s right to their body during this trial.

Having empathy for sexual assault survivors would compromise her career.

But if Rotunno can’t do her job without victim blaming, then I don’t think she’s very good at what she does.

Jacklyn Walters is the managing editor and can be reached at jacklyn.walters@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @JacklynAWalters.

JACKLYN WALTERS




Jacklyn Walters is a senior communication major and The Spectrum's managing editor. She enjoys bringing up politics at the dinner table and seeing dogs on campus.