By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York state judge on Friday approved Harvey Weinstein’s overhaul of his legal team to defend him against criminal sexual assault charges, though two of his new lawyers represented one of the disgraced Hollywood mogul’s most vocal accusers, actress Rose McGowan.
At a Manhattan court hearing, Weinstein told Judge James Burke he accepted the potential conflicts of interest that Jose Baez and Ronald Sullivan might have from recently representing McGowan in a Virginia drug possession case, where she pleaded no contest.
The judge said McGowan had accused Weinstein of having cocaine planted in her wallet, and his new lawyers might have email evidence where he supposedly wrote about it.
“He was commenting on the absurdity of the allegations,” Weinstein’s former lawyer Benjamin Brafman told Burke, referring to Weinstein and the alleged email evidence.
But the judge cautioned Weinstein his new lawyers “might not cross-examine Ms. McGowan as vigorously as they might otherwise” if she testified at his trial, which is not expected. Weinstein said he understood.
Prosecutors accuse Weinstein, 66, of forcibly performing oral sex on a woman in 2006 and raping another woman in 2013.
Weinstein has pleaded not guilty to five criminal charges, and could face life in prison if convicted.
“He is innocent,” Baez told reporters after the hearing. “He should be entitled to the same presumption as anyone else.”
More than 70 women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct. He has denied all accusations and said any contact was consensual.
Weinstein’s case helped launch the #MeToo movement, in which dozens of powerful men in entertainment, politics and other fields were accused of sexual misconduct.
On Jan. 7, a not guilty plea was entered in a Massachusetts court on behalf of Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey to sexually assaulting an 18-year-old man in 2016.
Baez previously represented Casey Anthony, the Florida mother found not guilty in 2011 of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.
He worked with Sullivan, a Harvard Law School professor, when they won a 2017 acquittal for former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez at his double murder trial. Hernandez later committed suicide.
Another new Weinstein lawyer is Pamela Mackey, who represented former basketball star Kobe Bryant when he was accused of raping a woman in 2003. Bryant called the encounter consensual. The case was eventually dropped.
His other new lawyer is Duncan Levin, a former top deputy to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
Weinstein’s trial is scheduled for early May. The next hearing is on March 8. Baez, Sullivan and Levin attended Friday’s hearing.
“Welcome aboard,” Burke told them.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)