Opening Arguments Begin in Oscar Screenwriter Paul Haggis’s Rape Trial

Haggis’s side argued that either it didn’t happen, or that the accuser was an agent of Scientology, or that she wants money

NEW YORK, NY—Opening arguments began at the Manhattan courthouse at 60 Centre Street in the rape case against Oscar-winning Crash screenwriter Paul Haggis Wednesday. Former film publicist Haleigh Breest has accused him of forcing her to give him oral sex and then raping her in 2013. Haggis has contended that the encounter was consensual and filed a counter-complaint to Breest’s suit. In his complaint, Haggis says that Breest and her attorney had attempted to extort him to the tune of $9 million to avoid legal action.

Plaintiff’s lawyer for Breest, Zoe Salzman, sketched a picture of what Breest’s life was like in 2013, the year she was allegedly assaulted by Haggis. Just 26 years old and working two jobs—one during the day for a PR firm, and one at night working a freelance PR gig for the Cinema Society—brought her in contact with Paul Haggis. Haggis was not only important to the Society, Salzman argued, but he had an even more outsize influence in her life as he was friends with her boss. However, their interactions—at events, mostly, or over email—were strictly professional.

“Their encounters before that night were brief, passing affairs,” Salzman said. Then, after Haggis offered to give Breest a ride home on a cold January night, he flipped the switch and cajoled her to come into his Soho apartment. She quickly found herself trapped in his Mercer St. apartment with an elevator that only worked with a key. “You’re scared of me, aren’t you?” Haggis allegedly asked her.

“He forced her to give him oral sex, and he raped her,” said Salzman. “He did not stop when she said stop. He did not stop when she struggled. His DNA was found inside the tights she was wearing that night.”

Salzman says her client has not had “intimate relations in almost a decade” and has “tried to have sex once—once—since the rape.” She also suffers from PTSD.

Four other women who Haggis allegedly sexually assaulted are set to give testimony.

The defense argued that Haggis was falsely accused, and mocked some of the text messages Breest sent to her friend the day after she was raped by Haggis. (“I don’t think he’s a terrible person and if you’ve met him you’d like him”).

They stated that Haggis was the only member of the Church of Scientology to have won an Oscar, and a powerful member of the organization—only to become a target when he left the church. “[The church] stopped trying to destroy him as soon as Brees filed the lawsuit,” his defense attorney said.

“Breest brought this case, not us,” Haggis’ team said. “Is Haleigh Breest telling the truth? You may never know whether Haleigh is lying on behalf of Scientology or lying to get Paul’s money.” (Breest is not a Scientologist).

The first witness, via video testimony, was Nancy Manoogian, who does not know Breest. Like Breest, Manoogian worked in film and TV publicity, and she also alleges she was assaulted by Haggis. Working with Haggis, she remembered that he often commented on her looks, her well-proportioned body, how her bust looked in a turtleneck.

Then came the day when Haggis suggested an out-of-character late-night meeting in her office. There, he grabbed her and started kissing her, Manoogian said, adding that she froze but she didn’t run away because, “I don’t know… fear… I really froze.” Then, she alleged, Haggis forced her to have oral sex with him.

“He exposed himself,” she said. “I was completely horrified that this was happening… He could tell that I was not into this… and it didn’t matter, really didn’t matter [to him]. He had an agenda.”

He also forced her to have sex with him, she said, “against the wall in the back office.”

Manoogian felt “stunned” afterwards. “I came so close to reporting it, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to expect – police, lawyers…”

After the alleged rape, she never saw him again.

Haggis’s accusers have filed a separate civil lawsuit claiming that the Church stalked and harassed them after they reported him to the Los Angeles Police Department, accusations three of the women further testified to in pretrial hearings in March 2021. The judge in the criminal case has indicated that she will permit some Scientology discussion in the courtroom, although the defense is still looking to restrict it.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Haggis is one of a series of #MeToo cases being tried recently. Cuba Gooding Jr. pleaded not guilty to a lesser charge in a forcible touching case last week and avoided jail. Also in New York City, actor Kevin Spacey is on trial in a civil lawsuit for allegedly sexually assaulting actor Anthony Rapp.

And in Los Angeles, the rape trial of former Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein has begun, two years after he was convicted on similar charges in NY, and for which the disgraced producer is serving a 23-year sentence. Meanwhile, That 70s Show actor Danny Masterson is also on trial for rape in L.A.

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