Important Harvey Weinstein hearing could be held in secret

NEW YORK — An important pretrial hearing in Harvey Weinstein's sexual assault case could play out in secret if a judge rules against news organizations fighting to keep the courtroom open.

Both the prosecution and defence have asked that Friday's hearing, which will deal with trial strategy and potential witnesses, be held behind closed doors.

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Prosecutors say they want to protect Weinstein's right to a fair trial and shield the identities of women who've accused the disgraced movie mogul of wrongdoing.

Weinstein's lawyers say news coverage could taint the jury pool.

Lawyers for the news organizations, including The Associated Press and The New York Times, are due to appear before Judge James Burke before he rules. They argue that the sides haven't met a high legal standard for banning the media and the public.

If Burke decides to keep the courtroom closed, the media lawyers will likely ask that Weinstein's pretrial hearing be delayed so that they may appeal.

Weinstein, 67, is charged with raping an unidentified female acquaintance in his Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006.

Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex. He pleaded not guilty and is free on $1 million bail. His trial is scheduled to begin June 3.

Weinstein is expected to attend Friday's hearing, which will focus on a prosecution request to have some of his dozens of other accusers testify. Prosecutors want to show that Weinstein has had a history of violating women.

Suburban Philadelphia prosecutors used that strategy last year in convicting actor and comedian Bill Cosby at his sexual assault retrial.

Perhaps anticipating an onslaught of accusers taking the witness stand, Weinstein lawyer Jose Baez sent a letter this week to the lawyer for one of them, asking for emails he says show the woman acknowledged she had a consensual relationship with Weinstein.

A lawyer for the news organizations, Robert Balin, argued in a court filing his week that holding the hearing behind closed doors would do nothing to safeguard Weinstein's right to a fair trial because allegations against him from more than 80 women have already been widely reported.

Many of those women, such as actresses Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, have agreed to be identified publicly.

"Clearly, there is no rational basis — let alone 'compelling circumstances' — that could justify the Parties' effort to suppress this information now that it is in the public domain as a result of intensive news reporting," Balin wrote in the filing.

Balin called closing the courtroom an "extreme remedy" and argued that as much as possible the hearing should be held in open court.

The news organizations are also requesting that documents filed under seal in the case be made public and that all future filings, even ones made under seal, be listed on the case docket so that "the public and press receive prompt notice that such materials exist."

The Associated Press does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they come forward publicly.

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Follow Michael Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak

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