190917 Harvey Weinstein arrives in court in New York
Harvey Weinstein arrives in court in New York Image Credit: AP

New York:  Harvey Weinstein's high-profile sex crimes trial opened Monday, kicking off proceedings key to the #MeToo movement that could see the once-mighty Hollywood producer jailed for life if convicted on charges of predatory sexual assault.

The disgraced movie mogul entered the New York state courthouse looking frail in a dark suit and using a walker, more than two years after a slew of allegations against him triggered waves of outrage over pervasive sexual assault in the workplace, leading to the downfall of dozens of powerful men.

Demonstrators anchored by actresses Rose McGowan and Rosanna Arquette - two of Weinstein's most prominent accusers - gathered outside the Manhattan court wielding signs with slogans like "Justice for survivors."

"Time's up on sexual harassment in all work places," Arquette said. "Time's up on empty apologies without consequences. And time's up on the pervasive culture of silence that has enabled abusers like Weinstein."

The first day in court was largely technical and lasted just over an hour, with the judge rejecting a defense request that the jury be sequestered.

In one testy exchange, Manhattan District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon accused a lead defense attorney, Donna Rotunno, of quoting sealed documents to the press.

Rotunno shot back, reproaching the prosecutor for calling Weinstein a "predator" in court.

The judge said pre-screening would begin Tuesday and proper jury selection could be delayed until January 14 with the proceedings expected to last six to eight weeks.

Watershed moment? 

Almost 90 women, including Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, have accused the 67-year-old of sexual misconduct since The New York Times detailed claims against him in October 2017.

But Weinstein, once one of Hollywood's most influential figures, is being tried on charges related to just two women, highlighting the difficulty of building cases around incidents that took place years ago.

Former production assistant Mimi Haleyi alleges that the "Pulp Fiction" producer forcibly performed oral sex on her in his New York apartment in July 2006.

The second alleged victim is anonymous. She says Weinstein, the co-founder of Miramax Films, raped her in a New York hotel room in March 2013.

"The Sopranos" actress Annabella Sciorra will also give evidence as the prosecution seeks to convince the jury that Weinstein engaged in a pattern of predatory sexual behavior.

A conviction would signal a watershed moment in the #MeToo movement's fight against sexual harassment and abuse of power in Hollywood and beyond.

Since the movement took hold, almost all men felled in a deluge of allegations, be it in the world of entertainment or business, have escaped prosecution.

The only other trial on the horizon is that of R&B singer R. Kelly, who was charged last year with several assaults on young women, but allegations of sexual impropriety have dogged him for years.

American comedian Bill Cosby was sentenced to at least three years in prison in September 2018, although proceedings had started in late 2015, two years before the post-Weinstein surge of allegations.

Jury fight 

Weinstein's trial will be closely watched.

Some 150 journalists, on top of regular court reporters, have requested access to the courtroom which only seats around 100.

Accusers and #MeToo activists could also crowd the public benches in support of Weinstein's alleged victims, who are expected to endure brutal cross-examinations.

On Monday, Sarah Ann Masse, an actress who says Weinstein sexually assaulted her when she interviewed for a job as a nanny in 2008, voiced support for those testifying, sending them "so much strength and courage."

"The man has spent 30-plus years assaulting over 100 women - it's incredibly clear what happened," she told AFP. "As long as the judge and jury listen to the facts and understand the nature of grief and trauma and what's normal for survivors, he will go to jail."

Bars for life 

Weinstein, who has always maintained that his sexual relationships were consensual, is unlikely to testify.

His defense team has been trying to undermine the allegations of the two accusers on the charge sheet since long before the start of the trial.

They have produced emails and text messages which they say show that both remained in friendly contact with the accused for several months after the alleged events.

In an email interview with CNN, published Saturday, Weinstein suggested he may be able to rebuild his career in the movie business if acquitted.

"If I can get back to doing something good and building places that help heal and comfort others, I intend to do so," he wrote.

Masse voiced hope for a far different outcome: "I am hoping he goes to jail for the rest of his life."