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Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial in New York will be perhaps the biggest and most important production of his lifetime.
Mr. Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul known for his ego and tenacity, parted ways with his defense lawyer, Benjamin Brafman last week, and is working fast to assemble a “dream team” of powerhouse trial lawyers to handle his sexual assault case — a cast that may feature a woman as his lead counsel, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Mr. Weinstein’s break from Mr. Brafman followed weeks of intense arguing between the two. It appeared to reflect a change in Mr. Weinstein. He had spent the past year largely in hiding after an avalanche of accusations from women about sexual harassment and assault made him the symbol of the #MeToo movement. During that time, he placed his entire faith in Mr. Brafman — a pugnacious former prosecutor at home in the city’s criminal courts — to speak for him on the courthouse steps and to fight the sex-crime charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
But now Mr. Weinstein appears to be reasserting control over his defense — using the template set out by O.J. Simpson in his murder trial in 1995 — and assembling a team of legal experts. One person familiar with Mr. Weinstein’s thinking said he is “looking for an experienced woman” to defend him against allegations of rape and sexual assault.
“I don’t find it unusual from a person who is Harvey Weinstein,” said Barbara S. Barron, a former prosecutor who teaches law at Hofstra University. “He wants to have a woman on his defense team — I think that’s perfectly aligned with what we know about him.”
Recently Mr. Weinstein reached out to three women who are highly respected trial lawyers in New York: Susan Necheles, Susan Brune and Isabelle Kirshner, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ms. Kirshner declined to say whether she had met with Mr. Weinstein, but said his search made sense. “It can’t hurt,” she said. “If I were in his position, I would want a woman on my team.”
Ms. Kirshner represented Eric Schneiderman, the former New York attorney general, against allegations that he assaulted multiple women, and defended Dr. Robert Hadden, a Manhattan gynecologist who pleaded guilty in 2016 to sexually assaulting his patients.
Having a woman on Mr. Weinstein’s team could help to soften the image of a man who has become the “poster boy for misogyny in the U.S.,” said Daniel R. Alonso, a former chief assistant to Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
Mr. Weinstein began to make calls to other lawyers last month after Justice James Burke rejected Mr. Brafman’s argument that the charges should be dismissed, one person familiar with the case said.
Mr. Weinstein’s plan was to create a team of professionals with a variety of specialties, similar to the group Mr. Simpson assembled to win an acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife. Mr. Weinstein, the person said, did not believe Mr. Brafman could handle the trial on his own.
“You had two strong personalities who both know how things should get done,” a second person with knowledge of the discussions said. “There’s only one captain of a ship.”
But Mr. Brafman, who is considered to be among the best trial lawyers in New York City, wanted veto power over who could join the “dream team,” and Mr. Weinstein disagreed, a third person familiar with the matter said.
The men, who had squabbled before their public split, had begun to argue more intensely in recent weeks.
“They were going to kill each other,” said the person with knowledge of their heated exchanges.
But Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Brafman said in a joint statement, “There were no arguments, only philosophical differences, and we both have immense respect for one another’s talents, and appreciate the time we worked together.”
On Thursday, Mr. Brafman notified the court of his desire to withdraw from the case. Justice Burke will make a decision on the matter on Friday. Mr. Weinstein is expected to “introduce” his new defense team Monday.
Some defense lawyers questioned why Mr. Weinstein would severe ties with Mr. Brafman just a few months before his trial begins in May, and after his lawyer had gotten one of the charges against him dismissed in October.
That charge was related to Lucia Evans, a marketing executive, who alleged that the producer had forced her to perform oral sex on him in 2004. The charge was dropped after prosecutors acknowledged that the lead detective on the case, Nicholas DiGaudio, had not shared with them a conflicting account from a witness.
At that point, the case appeared to be fraying, and Mr. Brafman continued to pile on, releasing emails between Mr. Weinstein and his two remaining accusers in a relentless attempt to undermine their credibility.
“There are a lot of great lawyers in Manhattan,” said Mr. Alonso, an executive with Exiger, a compliance and investigations firm. “I can’t think of anyone better than Benjamin Brafman as a criminal defense lawyer in New York County.”
Another lawyer, Mark A. Bederow, said Mr. Weinstein had “one of the best attorneys imaginable.”
But finding a new lawyer likely will not be difficult for Mr. Weinstein, Mr. Bederow said, because of the high-profile and challenging nature of the case.
“This is what you do,” he said. “Someone is accused of a crime, there are due-process rights and credible defenses. It appears to be a very triable case.”
Other people Mr. Weinstein has reached out to include Duncan Levin, a former state and federal prosecutor, and Jeffrey Lichtman, who represents Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the infamous drug lord known as El Chapo.
Mr. Lichtman said he met with Mr. Weinstein nearly two weeks ago.
“He’s warm and very funny,” he said. “He’s very smart and most importantly I’m convinced of his innocence.”
Mr. Weinstein faces five charges related to two other women, including one who say the producer raped her and another who said he performed oral sex on her against her will. The remaining charges include two counts of predatory sexual assault, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.