A friend of filmmaker Paul Haggis said Monday that the one time he made a pass at her, she let him know she wasn’t interested and that was that: The two moved past the moment and became even closer friends — fellow Canadians who bonded over backgammon. Later in the day, the defense called on a professor of psychology and expert on memory, Deborah Davis, who also is a consultant for the lawyers representing Harvey Weinstein in his criminal rape cases in New York, where he was convicted, and in Los Angeles, where his trial is underway.
Both witnesses testified on day nine of the sexual assault civil trial for Haggis, the Oscar winner for Crash and Million Dollar Baby. The plaintiff, Haleigh Breest, has testified that Haggis raped her in his apartment in Soho in 2013 in an encounter Haggis says was consensual. Four other women, all Canadian, have also testified in the case that Haggis assaulted or tried to assault them sexually when they were alone with him.
Sarah McNally, founder of the boutique bookstore cafe chain McNally Jackson Books in New York City whose flagship store is in Soho, told a different story for the defense. She said the two met in 2015 or 2016, and that the pass happened after at his apartment as he poured them wine. “He moved to kiss me and I turned my head away,” McNally said.
“He kind of shrugged and went, ‘Okay,’” McNally said, pronouncing “okay” in a high-pitched voice. “And then he taught me backgammon,” she added. McNally, 47, said that of anyone whose advances she had ever rejected, Haggis had “the most easygoing, comical and friendly response.”
After the Breest lawsuit was filed, McNally said she was asked by Haggis’ ex-wife to write a statement on his behalf. A lawyer for Breest, Ilann Maazel, read from McNally’s email reply to the request from January 2018. It began, “I haven’t known Paul long nor do I know him well, but here’s a statement.”
The proposed statement went on to describe Haggis as “the menschiest of mensches, endlessly generous, kind, supportive, clever, and funny,” with “an instinctive devotion to making everyone around him feel happy and at ease.”
“In the absence of due process and in the presence of a vindictive church of scientology,” it concluded, “I find these accusations very difficult to believe.”
On cross-examination McNally said that she has spoken with Haggis about the allegations by Breest, but that she doesn’t know Breest or any of the other four women who testified against him. McNally said she knows other female friends of Haggis’.
“Would you agree with me that people are complex?” Maazel asked. McNally agreed they are. “Would you agree that people show different sides of themselves to people in different circumstances?” he asked. McNally said it depends on the circumstances.
Maazel then asked if, as a bookseller, she was familiar with “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the 19th century gothic novel about a respected doctor who uses a potion to turn himself at will into a monster and then back to his civilized self. A defense lawyer objected and the judge, Sabrina Kraus, agreed before Maazel could ask McNally any more about split personalities.
The defense then called Davis, who also is a colleague of Elizabeth Loftus, the expert on false memories who testified for Weinstein and for Ghislaine Maxwell, the latter who was convicted of procuring underage girls for her billionaire friend Jeffrey Epstein.
Davis today told jurors that people bend memories of events to fit their emotional needs and sometimes remember things that didn’t happen. “What’s left over time is the story we tell ourselves of what happened,” she said. Davis also contradicted claims made by a psychologist for Breest’s legal team, Lisa Rocchio, about memory and about myths that prejudice people against victims of rape.
Davis said it “so very, very not” the case, as Rocchio testified, that our memory of the “central details” of particular events is more accurate and durable than the “peripheral details.”
“Memory for central details can be very, very inaccurate,” said said, influenced by emotional states, alcohol consumption, external information such as news reports, and the input of other people. Lawyers for Haggis have argued that Breest was drinking, and might have taken an anti-anxiety pill, on the night of the movie-screening party in 2013 that she was working as a freelance publicist before she agreed to go home with Haggis, where they both drank more.
But research also shows that drinking doesn’t necessarily impair a person’s retention or recall of events, Davis said under questioning by a lawyer for Breest, Zoe Salzman. Davis protested that the research is incomplete because “there’s only so drunk you can get people in the laboratory.”
Salzman, on cross-examination, highlighted Davis’ connections to Weinstein and, over several objections, her professional ties to Loftus, who testified in the New York Weinstein case that she is “not an expert in brain regions.”
Davis didn’t dispute that she used to be a jury consultant who helped lawyers figure out how to pick and influence panels, and that she has mostly testified for defendants in civil rape cases. Salzman read aloud from a deposition that Loftus gave on behalf of Kevin Spacey, who won a jury verdict in New York earlier this month in a federal civil case brought by the actor Anthony Rapp accusing Spacey of rape.
Salzman also quoted back research from her colleague Loftus showing that “traumatic experiences are better remembered than everyday experiences.”
Finally, in a discussion of rape myths, Salzman read some of Davis’ own published writings back to her: a passage that showed juries tended to disbelieve the central claims of people who got peripheral details wrong; and that jurors will look for ways to acquit an accused rapist “if the victim can be painted as unlikeable … or unworthy of justice.”
“I said it was a review of the research,” Davis said curtly.