Judge refuses to remove himself after Weinstein's lawyers claim bias

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Denying he was biased, the judge in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial on Thursday refused to remove himself from the high-profile case, rejecting an accusation by the former film producers’ lawyers.

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“I have in no way prejudged this case,” Justice James Burke told Weinstein’s lawyers. “I am going to great lengths to afford your client a fair trial.”

Sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein by dozens of women helped fuel the #MeToo movement, which encouraged women to go public with misconduct allegations against powerful men.

In the New York case, Weinstein, 67, has pleaded not guilty to charges of assaulting two women, and faces life in prison if convicted on the most serious charge, predatory sexual assault. His trial began on Monday and could last up to two months.

Since 2017, more than 80 women, including many famous actresses, have accused him of sexual misconduct dating back decades. Weinstein has denied all the allegations, saying any sexual encounters he had were consensual.

One of his lawyers, Arthur Aidala, filed a motion on Wednesday urging Burke to recuse himself.

As evidence of judicial bias, Aidala cited a comment Burke made Tuesday when he threatened to revoke Weinstein’s bail after catching him using his cellphone in court.

“Is this really the way you want to end up in jail for the rest of your life, by texting and violating a court order?” the judge said at the time.

Burke on Thursday said that even if the comments were “hyperbolic,” they were not evidence of prejudice.

“I certainly never actually meant that I was going to put your client in jail for life, nor did I mean, because I have not, that I have prejudged whether he is guilty or innocent of the charges,” the judge said.

Burke also denied Aidala’s request to delay the trial for a “cooling-off period.”

“There is no time like the present to go forward,” the judge said. “All sides are ready.”

Thursday was the third day of jury selection in the case, with 120 potential jurors called in for pre-screening. A murmur went through the courtroom when Burke announced the name of the defendant before delivering instructions about jury service.

Burke cut the proceedings short before noon because the lead prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi, had a medical issue. The 120 potential jurors are expected to return on Friday morning.

Weinstein, once one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, made his mark with critically acclaimed films such as “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis