Weinstein conviction could influence other sex crime prosecutions

New York prosecutors are hailing former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s conviction as a pivotal moment that could change the way the legal system views a type of sexual assault case historically considered difficult to prove.

Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault against two women and led off to prison in handcuffs Monday in what his foes hailed as a landmark moment for the legal system and a long-overdue reckoning for the man vilified as the biggest monster of the #MeToo era.

The 67-year-old Weinstein had a look of resignation on his face as he heard the verdict: guilty on two charges, not guilty on a set of more serious ones. While it was not the across-the-board victory prosecutors and his accusers had hoped for, it could put the stooped and feeble-looking Weinstein behind bars for the rest of his life. The charges carry up to 29 years in prison.

Most of the women who testified against Weinstein stayed in contact with him — and sometimes had consensual sexual encounters with him — after alleged attacks. None promptly reported his crimes. There was little physical evidence to bolster their stories.

The jury convicted anyway, finding the producer guilty of raping one woman in 2013 and sexually assaulting another in 2006.

“This is a new day,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said after the verdict was announced. “Rape is rape whether the survivor reports within an hour, within a year or perhaps never. It’s rape despite the complicated dynamics of power and consent after an assault. It’s rape even if there is no physical evidence.”

But some women’s advocates cautioned that it’s too soon to know how much the legal landscape has shifted.

“This is not a signal that our systems and institutions are magically transformed,” said Sonia Ossorio, the president of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter, who sat through most of the trial. “This is one case, one man. We’ve got to keep it in perspective.”

If any case seemed to encapsulate the #MeToo reckoning with sexual misconduct, gender dynamics and power as a form of coercion, it was Weinstein’s.

Dozens of women who crossed paths with Weinstein through the entertainment industry have said he bullied, pressured, coerced or overpowered them while demanding sexual favors. The alleged encounters took place over many decades, amid movie screenings in Los Angeles, film festivals in Cannes, and business meetings in New York or London.

The New York case involved only six accusers: three directly linked to the charges and three whose testimony was meant to bolster the prosecution case.

Weinstein’s defense team argued that the encounters were consensual, if perhaps “transactional”: He wanted sex, they wanted access to his power over the film world.

While the law recognizes that people can be assaulted by intimate partners in ongoing relationships, those cases have rarely been prosecuted in the past, because they’re difficult to prove, several trial lawyers said. The tide is starting to change, however, as prosecutors take more risks and juries become more aware of the complexities of human behavior.

“This case challenges our notions of what is force in a sexual relationship, what is lack of consent in a sexual relationship,” said Paul DerOhannesian, an Albany, New York, defense lawyer, former sex crimes prosecutor and author of a guide to sexual assault trials. He followed the trial coverage and found it telling that one of the first questions from the jury involved the legal definition of “consent” and “forcible compulsion.”

Vance initially declined to prosecute Weinstein when a model claimed he’d groped her in 2015. Facing criticism of the 2015 decision after waves of additional women came forward two years later, Vance ultimately took some of their allegations to trial.

One of the first witnesses at trial was an expert on victim behavior, who testified that it isn’t unusual for sexual assault victims to continue communicating with their attackers. A decade ago, that type of expert testimony was rarely allowed.

The jury ultimately acquitted Weinstein of two of the most serious counts: one of first-degree rape, and a second charge that he was a sexual predator, linked to the testimony of actress Annabella Sciorra, who said Weinstein barged into her apartment and raped her in the early 1990s.

But Weinstein, 67, still faces the possibility of up to 29 years in prison. He’s also facing separate charges in Los Angeles involving two more alleged sexual assault victims.

The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sex crimes unless they grant permission, as Sciorra did.

Criminal defense attorney Richard Kaplan said the New York case could both empower women to come forward and embolden prosecutors to take on tough cases.

“Now there is a roadmap on how you can win this kind of case,” he said, predicting more people would come forward.

“There’s always the fear of coming forward, you know, going through a trial, getting beat up and humiliated and then not getting that verdict. Now that they see it can be done, I think more people will come forward and definitely empower the movement.”

Lawyer Carrie Goldberg represents Weinstein accuser Lucia Evans, whose complaint against him was initially part of the indictment, but Vance’s office ultimately dropped her allegations from the case. While Goldberg faults Vance for not sticking with her client, she said the conviction is a “watershed moment” — and a long time coming.

“I hope that prosecutors, all over this country, and all over the world, look at this case and realize that rape trials can be won,” Goldberg said, “and that these aren’t just ‘he said, she said’ stories, but they’re actually crimes that are winnable and need to be brought.”

Many of Weinstein’s accusers, however, celebrated the verdict.

Actress Mira Sorvino broke down in tears as she described her reaction to the guilty verdict against Harvey Weinstein: relief, that the fallen movie mogul would not go unpunished. A tinge of disappointment, that he was acquitted of the most serious charges, two counts of predatory sexual assault. But most of all gratitude, to the six accusers who were brave enough to testify — and the jurors who believed them.

“Harvey Weinstein has haunted many of our lives, even our nightmares, long after he initially did what he did to each one of us,” Sorvino said shortly after Monday’s verdict, in an emotional phone call with reporters and fellow accusers. “We’ve finally taken that power back, we have exposed his evil,” she said, her voice breaking.

“He will rot in jail as he deserves, and we will begin to have some closure,” she said.

“I have a renewed sense of faith that women will be believed when they come forward,” said Caitlin Dulany. “We were really hoping to change the world with this, and today is a good indication that we are on that road.

“It’s like the sky is blue again,” she said.

Many spoke of the need to shore up laws governing sex crimes. Among them was actress Rosanna Arquette.

“Moving forward we must actively pursue strengthening laws and closing loopholes in our criminal systems,” she said on the telephone call, “so that more rape cases will be prosecuted and rapists will be held accountable for their crimes. But today, let’s focus on the progress that has been made with the first guilty verdict in the MeToo era.”

Earning special praise from her fellow accusers was “Sopranos” actress Annabella Sciorra, on whose testimony the charges of predatory sexual assault hinged. Sciorra told the court that Weinstein had barged into her apartment, raped her and forcibly performed oral sex on her in the mid-1990s.

The actress called her testimony “painful but necessary.”

“I spoke for myself and with the strength of the 80 plus victims of Harvey Weinstein in my heart,” she said in a statement. “We can never regret breaking the silence.”

Sorvino, describing the bonds that had formed between the accusers, spoke of getting an unexpected phone call from Sciorra in late 2017, when Sorvino had first made allegations against Weinstein. They’d known each other for years, but didn’t know they had a darker connection.

They spoke for two hours on the phone, Sorvino said. Soon after, Sciorra decided to come forward with her own story, to journalist Ronan Farrow.

“The era of impunity for powerful men who rape people is over,” Sorvino said. “We did this together.”

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