Harvey Weinstein showed up to court Monday morning for the first day of jury selection in his rape trial looking haggard and unsteady, hunched over a walker—something he's used nearly every time he's appeared in public over the past few months. Critics have cast doubt on the idea that he actually needs it, though he and his legal team insist he does. On the one hand, he did injure his back in a car accident in August, which led him to get surgery on his spine last month. On the other, it's hard not to entertain the thought that Weinstein's walker might be a ploy—a cheap bid to drum up sympathy for the disgraced producer ahead of his trial.
In early December, just a few days after he appeared in a Manhattan courtroom with the walker, someone spotted him shopping at a Target without it. His interview with the New York Post later that month, in which he lamented that he'd become a "forgotten man"—accompanied by photos of him in a hospital room, perched behind the walker—only added to the sense that Weinstein was scheming to make potential jurors feel sorry for him. Now everyone, from writers at the Atlantic and Page Six to an army of skeptics on Twitter, seems to be asking the same question: Is Weinstein's walker just a prop?
The answer, according to both a spine surgeon and a criminal defense attorney: Probably not.
Weinstein's car wreck in August wasn't a minor accident. He reportedly swerved to avoid hitting a deer, slammed into a tree, and flipped his SUV on its side, forcing him to kick open a door to get out. When that happened, Weinstein likely suffered something called spinal stenosis, according to Dr. Charla Fischer, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone's Spine Center. There are nerve roots beneath your vertebrae that exist in what's essentially a fluid-filled tube. Fischer compared it to a garden hose: Put a kink in that hose, through an injury like Weinstein's, and you've got spinal stenosis. It can cause severe back pain, along with pain and numbness in your legs, which are linked to the nerves in your back.
"What can happen in spinal stenosis is, you feel better when you're leaning forward," Fischer told VICE. "When you lean forward slightly, you're opening up that spinal canal space, so you're kind of unkinking that kinked garden hose."
Fischer, who based her diagnosis on a description of Weinstein's surgery, said it's likely he would need a walker; she prescribes them to patients of hers with the same condition. And while it might seem off for Weinstein to still be using one nearly a month after his surgery, she said that's normal, given his history. He was first spotted using a walker back in October, and he's been using it ever since. The amount of time a patient needs a walker post-surgery depends largely on how long they've had one before the procedure, Fischer said. After months of assisted movement, Weinstein's legs are probably still weak from pain and underuse, and it'll take time before he can walk on his own again. Fischer said he'll be looking at about one-and-a-half to three months of recovery.
"It does make sense that if he was using [a walker] extensively before surgery, continuing to use it at this point would be expected," Fischer said.
For the sake of argument, let's assume Fischer is wrong, or that Weinstein is overblowing just how bad his back injury really is. Even still, according to Mark Bederow—a former Manhattan prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney—there's no way Weinstein's lawyers would try to use his health as a ruse to make him seem sympathetic.
"As a ploy, I don't think an attorney would want that," Bederow told VICE. "It's not going to gain any sympathy. You're dealing with somebody who can't really get any sympathy. It's just not possible given the barrage of bad press he's gotten over the past couple of years. Shuffling in on a walker isn't going to all of a sudden make people feel sorry for him, or think he's vulnerable."
If anything, Bederow said, Weinstein's walker is liable to hurt him. People are naturally skeptical of whether he really needs it, prone to ask exactly the kinds of questions about its validity they're asking now.
"Assuming it's not legitimate, all it does is make diligent reporters look to find him in public where he's not using a walker, when he's at a restaurant, a bar, a club or whatever. And it leads to an obvious question about whether any of this is sincere," Bederow said. "I don't think, as a lawyer, you would find any tactical edge in a case like this."
More than likely, Weinstein will need to hobble into court with a walker for the duration of his trial in New York, which is expected to last for about eight weeks as he's tried for rape, criminal sexual assault, and predatory sexual assault—a charge that could land him with a life sentence. Even if he's acquitted, he'll have to face another judge in California, where he was just charged with rape and sexual assault. He's facing up to 28 years in prison if he's convicted.
Despite the staggering number of women who have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct, the outcome of either trial is far from predictable. But we do know this: By the time he's either sentenced in New York or goes back to court in California, his back should be much better.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.