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Harvey Weinstein accuser Jessica Mann’s dramatic testimony is a new kind of test in sex-crime trials

In this courtroom sketch, witness Jessica Mann is questioned by the prosecution during film producer Harvey Weinstein's sexual assault trial in Manhattan on Feb. 4. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Jessica Mann thanked Harvey Weinstein often throughout their five-year relationship.

The aspiring actress, who met Weinstein in her late 20s, expressed gratitude to him for her many invitations to hot-ticket Hollywood parties. For solving her personal problems, like a jam she was in for getting too many parking tickets. For getting her a job working for a celebrity hairstylist. And for making her feel pretty.

"I appreciate all you do for me," Mann wrote to Weinstein, in an April 12, 2013, email. "It shows."

That message was sent less than a month after she says she was violently raped by him, during a trip to New York with friends around St. Patrick's Day, she recently told a Manhattan jury. The allegations, like others at his trial, were not reported until after the New York Times and the New Yorker published stories with multiple allegations against Weinstein and the #MeToo movement became a cultural phenomenon in late 2017.

Harvey Weinstein faces five sex-crime charges stemming from sexual misconduct allegations that sparked the worldwide #MeToo movement in 2017. (Video: The Washington Post)

According to Weinstein's defense team, the flattering note — one of many defense exhibits including Mann's own problematic words — undercuts the logic that she was pushed into a sexual relationship with the 67-year-old against her will.

Prosecutors meanwhile argued that the actress was the victim of manipulation, and was prevented from acting freely by the power gap between Weinstein, a major Hollywood producer, and Mann, an unknown aspiring actress. They also pointed to their physical differences: Weinstein was overweight, and cut an imposing figure; Mann, at roughly 5-foot-5, weighed about 105 pounds.

Mann is not the most famous person who has taken the stand in Weinstein's trial, but her three days of testimony have provided many of its most dramatic moments. She was at times contentious during cross examination, often broke into tears and at one point Judge James Burke ended a day's session early when she was unable to compose herself. And her mere presence as a witness for the prosecution signals what could be a major change in how sexual assault cases are tried, as her admitted consensual sexual relationship with Weinstein, both before and after the alleged assaults, makes her a traditionally imperfect witness.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has taken a gamble on Mann, hoping that her words may be enough to convict Weinstein, despite sometimes extenuating circumstances.

Laura Brevetti, a former federal prosecutor who has also handled sex crimes at the state level, said Mann's testimony, in particular, marks a potential shift in the type of cases prosecutors are willing to pursue. "Years ago, I would say her allegations would not be brought," she said. According to Brevetti, this case — and the many evidentiary rulings that have allowed testimony and records benefiting both sides — is testing the judge, the court and the system itself. "I do believe it's pushing, to use a common phrase, the envelope," she said.

Jurors heard hours of intimate details about the relationship between the film mogul and Mann, who moved to Los Angeles at age 25 with silver-screen dreams.

Mann testified that Weinstein told her she was more beautiful than Natalie Portman, and that he gave her hope for her future as an actress. Prosecutors Joan Illuzzi-Orbon and Meghan Hast argued that her audition for "Vampire Academy," a 2014 film produced by Weinstein's company, was a sham — that Mann was too old for the role and was never taken seriously. Veteran casting director Marci Liroff, who took the witness stand after Mann, confirmed that Mann and her friend Talita Maia auditioned, but weren't serious prospects.

"You guys are perfect for this film I am producing," Weinstein told the young women, who were significantly older than the teenage characters they were trying out for, according to testimony. "It's a vampire film and you would both make perfect leads."

The defense suggested that Mann had, instead, bombed at her reading. Weinstein's attorneys had her audition tape, but Burke refused to let them play it.

Prosecutors insist that Weinstein was playing her — that he had no intention of making her a star. Weinstein didn't deny Mann a career in the business, the defense team suggested in its questioning. She couldn't cut it, even with his help.

Over three grueling days of testimony, Mann, 34, testified that she couldn't say exactly how many consensual sexual encounters she had with Weinstein, but that she was raped twice. Her many consensual interactions with him occurred both before and after the alleged assaults.

The first alleged assault was at the Doubletree Hotel on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, and is the basis for charges of first and third-degree rape in the indictment against Weinstein. The second alleged assault took place at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, and is not the basis for any charge. According to Mann, the Los Angeles assault was a form of punishment for her decision to date an actor. "You owe me one more time," she said Weinstein told her.

But when confronted by defense attorney Donna Rotunno, Mann's chronology appeared to contain inconsistencies. For instance, she was long gone from her hairdresser job at the hotel — a gig that Weinstein got her — when she and the film mogul swapped emails about her new relationship. Under pressure, Mann said she didn't know precisely when the assault she alleges happened, but insisted that it was violent and forced.

She was challenged repeatedly about her claims, and questioned about her mental health history. In 2014, according to testimony, she consulted a life coach and a psychic about her relationship problems, both with Weinstein and another boyfriend at the time. She recorded those consultations, which the jury heard, telling the psychic she "did not allow Harvey Weinstein to cross boundaries" in her life.

"Well then," she testified. "I was lying."

For several years, Mann saw and spoke to Weinstein regularly, although she testified that she was unable to pin down the last time they had consensual sex. In February 2017, nearly four years after the alleged Manhattan assault, she playfully complained about her role in Weinstein's life, writing to him, "I love you, I always do. But I hate feeling like a booty call. ;)"

Mann is one of two primary accusers in Weinstein's criminal rape and sexual assault case. He faces similar charges related to two accusers in Los Angeles, one of whom took the stand after Mann. In February 2013, Lauren Young said she was groped by Weinstein as he masturbated while she was trapped in the bathroom of his suite at the Montage Hotel, where she'd gone to the lobby bar to meet him and a Mexican model, Claudia Salinas, for what she thought was a business chat.

Prosecutors have made a concerted effort to portray Mann as a "naive" young woman from a small town in Washington state. As she told the jury, she was brought up on a dairy farm in an evangelical family, but she also discussed a troubled home life and hinted at being abused as a child — troubles that the prosecution offered as an explanation for the thinking that made her vulnerable to Weinstein.

In roughly 10 hours of cross-examination over three days of testimony, that image was assailed by Rotunno, Weinstein's lead lawyer, who has made a career defending men charged with sexual assaults. Rotunno had plenty of ammunition.

It came out that Mann was seeing Weinstein and an ex-boyfriend at the same time; that she had naked pictures of herself on at least one of her phones she was asked to turn over to law enforcement; and that she had bragged to friends and acquaintances about the powerful friend she had found in Weinstein.

She was caught in a misstatement when, on the witness stand, she told Rotunno that Weinstein "yelled at" her for sending the "booty call" message to his work email address at the Weinstein Co.

"He yelled at you?" Rotunno asked.

"It was in all capital letters."

It wasn't.

"Dear Jessica," Weinstein wrote. "From now on please text me at [sic] and call me on that number. I just tried you. I know you were joking. Some people don't think it is a joke, so please just that number instead of my company emails."

"Yes, I was joking. . . . Thank you for understanding," Mann responded, offering Weinstein her "new cell number."

Trial records show she changed her number several times during her relationship with Weinstein, updating him with the new contact information each time it changed, explaining now that she kept him on the line to "feel safe."

"I do know about these emails," Mann testified. "I'm not ashamed of it. . . . I know that it's complicated and difficult, but it doesn't change the fact that he raped me."

Repeatedly, she tried to explain her actions, going beyond the scope of the questioning, but was stopped by Burke.

Brevetti, the former prosecutor, said some of the details about Mann in evidence at the trial depart from what has historically been acceptable to judges in New York, and questioned whether that deviation was appropriate. Comments on a person's character, for instance — such as ones that have been made about Mann — were previously "verboten," Brevetti said. "Who are they to say that because she comes from a dairy farm she is too naive to understand she was being raped?"

Weinstein's trial is nearing its end. On Thursday, the prosecution rested, after calling 28 witnesses, three of whom are accusers who are officially part of the case, and three of whom were allowed to be called as supporting witnesses. On Thursday and Friday, Weinstein's lawyers called witnesses, and are expected to call several more early this week. It is unclear if Weinstein will take the stand in his own defense.

In addition to the rape charges related to Mann, Weinstein faces a count of a criminal sex act for allegedly forcing oral sex on Mimi Haleyi, a former production assistant, in 2006. According to his legal team, Haleyi also had a consensual relationship with Weinstein.

Along with Mann and Haleyi, actress Annabella Sciorra is the subject of two counts of predatory sexual assault for a pattern of allegedly criminal conduct. On those counts, Weinstein faces a minimum of 10 years and up to life in prison.