A Profile Of Donna Rotunno, Harvey Weinstein's Attorney

Jan 22, 2020
Originally published on January 22, 2020 8:08 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Harvey Weinstein is on trial for rape and assault in New York City. Today, we expect opening statements in his case. Weinstein's lawyer is a woman named Donna Rotunno. She's made a career defending men accused of sexual misconduct.

Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: I asked Donna Rotunno about some of the public comments she's made that have rankled a lot of people. For example, she's got problems with the #MeToo slogan, believe women.

DONNA ROTUNNO: I think that women need to be heard, which is different than women needing to be believed. So I think anybody that has something that they want to say or need to say, they should be heard. But without any questioning or any follow-up or any looking at details, I think then we have an issue.

BLAIR: In another instance, Rotunno said there are circumstances where women don't want to take responsibility for their actions. Some women have accused Weinstein of sexually assaulting them in hotel rooms. And Rotunno said, if you don't want to be a victim, don't go to the hotel room. But hotels are often where movie business gets done.

Years ago, when actress Rosanna Arquette was told to meet Harvey Weinstein at his hotel room, she thought it was business. Instead, he was wearing a bathrobe and made a pass at her. She rebuffed him and says her career suffered for it.

ROSANNA ARQUETTE: He told me I was making a big mistake. He threatened me.

BLAIR: Arquette is incensed that Rotunno would publicly doubt women who come forward to report sexual misconduct.

ARQUETTE: No survivor should be bullied, attacked and victimized the way Rotunno is targeting the brave women taking the witness stand. They are not on trial; Weinstein is.

BLAIR: But discrediting alleged victims is a defense strategy. Rotunno says she intends to prove that these encounters between Weinstein and the plaintiffs were quite different than how they've been presented. Donna Rotunno grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a food industry executive and an elementary school teacher. Her grandfather was a Chicago policeman. Rotunno is known for wearing designer suits and very high heels in court.

DAVID GAEGER: Her look reflects her ability as a lawyer.

BLAIR: An ability Rotunno's longtime law partner David Gaeger calls exceptional. He says the case that put her on the map involved a Chicago fashion designer they defended against rape charges.

GAEGER: The allegations were tough against him. But, you know, we really deconstructed the case. And Donna is so thorough and so effective in dealing with these types of cases and how sensitive the material is, but never letting go of the fact that she's a zealous advocate.

BLAIR: Rotunno has been involved in some 40 sexual misconduct cases. She says she didn't set out to do this work. Early in her career, she prosecuted crimes, including domestic battery. But the more cases she won, the more cases came to her. She believes that during cross-examination, she has advantages over her male counterparts.

ROTUNNO: When they see a woman asking a woman questions, they see us on more of an equal playing field and less of a situation where it looks like somebody is being bullied. And, you know, I know that my reputation is that I'm tough and I'm strong - and I am - but I'm also very respectful, and I don't raise my voice, and I'm not going to come at anyone in a disrespectful way.

BLAIR: In the New York trial, Harvey Weinstein is accused of sexual assault and rape of two women. The prosecution plans to call more of his alleged victims to testify to show a pattern of predatory behavior. Since October 2017, more than 80 women have publicly accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.