Weinstein Case to Revive Los Angeles D.A. Office’s Troubled History With Celebrity Trials

Harvey Weinsteinopening arguments

The Harvey Weinstein trial is now underway in New York, accompanied by a full-court media frenzy and a feminist flash mob.

Once it closes in Manhattan, the legal drama will have a second run in Los Angeles. Last week, District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced new charges against the producer, accusing him of raping and sexually assaulting two women within a two-day period in 2013.

Celebrity trials are a big part of the culture in Los Angeles. But Lacey — who is running for a third term on March 3 — has thus far largely avoided the high-pressure trials that bedeviled her predecessors.

“There hasn’t been a big, high-profile case in the office since she came in,” says Linda Deutsch, the retired AP correspondent who covered the L.A. courthouse for decades. “There really has been nothing.”

Weinstein will end that drought when he goes on trial, probably sometime next year. The case will also revive the office’s troubled history with celebrity prosecutions.

Gil Garcetti, who held the job from 1992 to 2000, is still best remembered for losing the O.J. Simpson case in 1995. His successor, Steve Cooley, vowed to do things differently.

But he, too, suffered a defeat in a celebrity case, when Robert Blake was acquitted of murder in 2005.

At the time, Cooley groused to reporters about the difficulties of prosecuting celebrities in Los Angeles. The jurors in the Blake case, he said, were “incredibly stupid,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “They think they know these celebrities. They think they know Robert Blake.”

Says Deutsch: “They wanted desperately to win because of the O.J. loss, and they didn’t.”

In 2007, when Phil Spector’s first murder trial ended in a hung jury, the narrative was set.

“L.A. prosecutors can’t win ‘big one,’” read the headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune. But Spector was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Lacey has been criticized for waiting two years to file charges against Weinstein. But that appears to be the pattern with high-profile cases in the office. Cooley waited nearly a year to charge Blake.

“As a general rule, my experience is if it’s a high-profile case, the D.A.’s office will be more deliberate in deciding whether to file charges,” says Dmitry Gorin, a former L.A. prosecutor who now is a criminal defense lawyer. “They dot the i’s and cross the t’s, and take time to decide.”

Since the Simpson case, there has also been an effort to keep public statements about such cases to a minimum. Garcetti was faulted at the time — and subsequently — for holding press conference after press conference on the Simpson case.

“That was his undoing,” Cooley tells Variety. “He was going to ride the O.J. guilty verdict all the way to the attorney general’s office.”

Garcetti was the public face of the defeat. He nearly lost reelection in 1996, with his opponent John Lynch hammering his handling of the case. He remained badly wounded when Cooley finished him off in 2000.

Cooley made a point of saying that he would treat celebrities the same as every other defendant. In 2002, he bristled at suggestions that he was being unduly harsh on Winona Ryder, who was convicted of shoplifting. He has long blamed Ryder’s attorney, Mark Geragos, for refusing to accept a plea bargain and turning the case into a circus.

Cooley believes the strategy of treating celebrities like anyone else may have backfired in the Blake case. The prosecutor, he says, handled the case “the old-fashioned way.”

“She did not build into the equation that there was a celebrity factor, and you have to figure out how to approach a jury because the rules of gravity don’t necessarily work,” he says.

Lacey’s office has one highly anticipated trial coming this year. The murder case against Robert Durst, the real estate heir featured in HBO’s “The Jinx,” will start in March and last five months. Lacey’s office also prosecuted rap mogul Suge Knight, though that case ended in a plea.

Lacey, who was Cooley’s top deputy, has been subdued in her handling of the Weinstein case. At last week’s press conference, she read from a carefully worded statement and did not reach for a headline-grabbing quote.

“Please remember this is a pending case, and we’re very limited in what we can say at this time,” she told reporters.

Cooley argues that the office’s problems with celebrities should not be a factor in the Weinstein case.

“He’s not a celebrity,” he says. “He’s a rich, executive dirtbag.”