By Gabriella Borter and Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) - Lawyers in Harvey Weinstein's New York rape trial finished selecting 12 jurors on Friday to decide the former Hollywood producer's fate, as prosecutors renewed an accusation that the defense had unfairly tried to block white women from serving on the jury.
The jury, comprised of six white men, three black women, one black man and two white women, is set to hear opening arguments next week.
Weinstein, the 67-year-old producer of Hollywood hits such as "The English Patient" and "Shakespeare in Love", has pleaded not guilty to assaulting two women. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Since 2017 more than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct dating back decades. He denies the allegations, saying any sexual encounters were consensual.
The accusations against him helped fuel the #MeToo movement, in which women have publicly accused powerful men in several industries of sexual abuse.
Lawyers seated two white female jurors on Friday after Weinstein's defense team had exhausted their opportunity to eliminate potential jurors who did not exhibit explicit bias against the defendant or otherwise seem unfit to serve.
Three legal experts said the defense appeared to assume white women would be more likely to sympathize with Weinstein's accusers.
Weinstein is charged with assaulting two women, Mimi Haleyi, who is white, and an anonymous accuser whose race is unknown. At least one other white female accuser, U.S. actress Annabella Sciorra, is expected to testify.
"It looks like their thought process is that a white woman would have more of an affinity to the victims," said Michael Bachner, a defense lawyer who is not involved in the case.
As potential jurors were eliminated on Thursday and Friday, prosecutor Joan Illuzzi accused Weinstein's lawyers of systematically striking "every white female" from the pool.
"They are systematically eliminating a class of people from this jury," Illuzzi said on Friday.
Weinstein's lawyers cited specific reasons for excluding each white woman. One had a father and brother in the FBI, and would be biased because she was "surrounded by law enforcement," said defense lawyer Arthur Aidala. One was a model, like some of Weinstein's 80 accusers. Another had a photo of a women's march posted prominently on her Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) profile, and a "social media influencer" daughter, the defense said.
Justice James Burke allowed the challenges without giving a reason.
"We are here to try to pick a fair jury," Donna Rotunno, Weinstein's lead attorney, said on Thursday. "This is not some conspiracy against the state."
Lawyers can excuse an unlimited number of potential jurors if they show explicit bias for or against Weinstein.
Beyond that, both sides can use "peremptory" challenges to reject jurors they believe will be unsympathetic, without providing a reason. Lawyers typically get three peremptory challenges, but in this case each side was given 20.
Weinstein's lawyers used roughly half of their peremptory challenges to excuse prospective white female jurors who had not otherwise been excused for bias or rejected by prosecutors.
It is illegal to use peremptory challenges to eliminate potential jurors on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity or religion.
Jill Taylor, who works for a trial consulting firm, said the defense's reasons for dismissing the white women appeared to be legitimate.
"To the extent you know someone's an activist or you know that someone is a model, those factors are going to weigh more heavily than just someone's basic demographics in decision-making," Taylor said. "Straight demographics are not generally predictive of how someone is going to hear a case."