A jury has been selected in the Paul Haggis rape trial, which is set to begin with opening remarks on Wednesday morning in New York City.
Haggis, the Oscar-winning director of “Crash” and screenwriter of “Million Dollar Baby,” has been accused of raping a publicist named Haleigh Breest after a movie premiere nearly a decade ago. Breest’s lawsuit was filed in 2017 in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which led to an influx of sexual assault allegations against prominent men.
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Haggis has claimed the encounter, which took place in 2013, was consensual and maintains the rape charge came in retaliation for his decision to leave and then criticsze the Church of Scientology. Prior to the trial, Breest’s attorneys sought to block Haggis from arguing that Scientology was orchestrating the allegations in retaliation, saying that Breest and other witnesses have no connection to the church. They also argued that pursuing that line of defense will distract the jury from the particulars of Breest’s allegations. But in September, Judge Sabrina Kraus ruled that Haggis will be able to use that argument.
On Tuesday, the defense and the prosecution questioned the potential jurors about their familiarity with the #MeToo movement, as well as the Church of Scientology. However, the focus on the controversial religion wasn’t nearly as pronounced as it was at the jury selection for the rape trial for “That ’70s Show” actor Danny Masterson, which is currently underway in Los Angeles.
Attorneys revealed that Leah Remini, the “King of Queens” star who left Scientology and became an outspoken critic, and Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon are among the defendant’s potential witnesses who could be called to testify. Remini has previously suggested that Scientology was behind the sexual assault claims against Haggis.
After the jurors were selected, the attorneys and the judge deliberated a few key points regarding the line of questioning toward the potential jurors, as well as Scientology’s place in the trial.
“It should be made clear that whether or not the jury decides what happens with Scientology doesn’t have anything to do with Ms. Breest telling the truth,” Haggis’ defense lawyer Priya Chaudhry said.
Breest’s attorney Ilann M. Maazel responded: “This entire Scientology conspiracy, which is what it is, should have no place in the trial. I feel strongly it shouldn’t be mentioned.”
The judge only took issue with the usage of the phrase “conspiracy theory.”
“I would ask ‘conspiracy theory’ not be used during trial,” she said. “But you could refer to ‘a theory of defense’ that the church is behind this or working with these women to come forward.”
Since it’s a civil trial, Haggis only faces potential monetary damages and not jail time. Kraus estimates the trial will take two weeks and will end sometime between Oct. 31 through Nov. 4.
Lawyers for Haggis, who left Scientology in 2009 about its opposition to gay marriage, have argued that there’s evidence the Church of Scientology was trying to “find dirt” on the director before the rape allegation was leveled against him.
Breest will be able to call three other “Jane Doe” witnesses who have leveled isolated sexual assault allegations against Haggis.
Following the 2017 lawsuit, Haggis sued Breest for accusations of false allegations and trying to extort him for $9 million. Haggis’ suit was dismissed, and he’s not able to bring it up at trial.
In a court filing in 2021, Haggis asked for a speedy trial, asserting the pending case has halted his career and nearly bankrupted him in legal fees.
The lawsuit against Haggis is one of four high-profile ongoing sexual assault trials this month. The others are against Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein and Masterson.
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