NEW YORK, NY – The judge in Harvey Weinstein's rape trial declined the defense's request that he step aside as jury selection dipped into a third day Thursday.
Judge James Burke announced his decision Thursday, a day after Weinstein's lawyers sent him a letter asking that he remove himself from the case. They objected to comments Burke made when he asked Weinstein if he was willing to got to jail “for life” if he keptignoring a court order that bars texting in the courtroom.
Weinstein’s lawyers blasted the judge's comments as “prejudicial and inflammatory,” and raised questions about his impartiality.
There was nothing improper about "scolding a recalcitrant defendant" over violating the cell phone ban, Burke said Thursday, adding that he was merely trying to scare Weinstein.
“I never meant that I was going to put your client in jail for life," he told defense attorneys.
Judges seldom step aside from cases over such requests, but Weinstein’s lawyers could be also making a play to make an issue of Burke's comments and rulings for a possible appeal.
The defense had further argued that Burke failed to adequately safeguard Weinstein’s right to a fair and impartial jury, in part by rejecting a request to halt jury selection for a “cooling off” period after prosecutors in Los Angeles filed new sex crimes charges against him Monday.
“There is no time like the present,” Burke said Thursday. “All sides are ready.”
Weinstein is charged in New York with raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and sexually assaulting another woman, Mimi Haleyi, in 2006. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. The 67-year-old ex-studio boss has pleaded not guilty and maintains that any sexual activity was consensual.
The initial phase of jury selection ended around midday Thursday, and will continue through next week. So far, 66 prospective jurors have advanced to the next stage in what is expected to be a lengthy selection process aimed at finding people who can keep an open mind about the disgraced movie mogul.
That challenge was demonstrated Thursday when Burke detected a stir after breaking the news to a new batch of prospective jurors that they were there for the Weinstein case.
“I heard a gasp from my left over here," the judge said. "So I have to tell you that having heard of Harvey Weinstein or even being familiar with the allegations made against him in the press or elsewhere are not by themselves disqualifying and does not mean that you’re not permitted to sit as a juror in this case. “