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Harvey Weinstein’s Mixed Verdict Shows the Challenge of Prosecuting Sexual Assault

6 minute read

Celebrations rippled across social media, and the women whose claims helped topple Harvey Weinstein cheered as the convicted rapist was led out of the courtroom and taken into custody.

“For once he won’t be sitting comfortably,” said actor Rose McGowan, who is one of the most vocal of Weinstein’s accusers. “For once he will know what it’s like to have power wrapped around his neck.”

A jury on Monday found the former Hollywood mogul guilty of raping Jessica Mann, a former aspiring actor, in 2013, and of sexually assaulting Mimi Haleyi, a former “Project Runway” production assistant, in 2006.

But while it’s a significant victory, advocates say, the trial shows how difficult it is to reach consensus on issues surrounding sexual misconduct, more than two years after an avalanche of allegations against Weinstein galvanized the #MeToo movement.

The verdict, which came on the fifth day of deliberations, paved a “new landscape for survivors of sexual assault in America,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. declared in front of dozens of reporters. Other victim advocates said it marked a “new era of justice” in which young women who faced sexual assault would no longer have to live in silence.

But some were quick to note that the seven men and five women also acquitted Weinstein of two counts of predatory sexual assault, the most serious charge, which could have put him in prison for life. They also found him not guilty of first-degree rape, a more serious rape charge than the one he was convicted of.

“I think they came to a compromise verdict,” says Aya Gruber, a former defense lawyer who teaches at the University of Colorado.

The jurors have not yet described the details of their deliberations, but one of them, jury foreman Bernard Cody, told the New York Daily News it was “stressful,” adding that he was “happy” with the result.

"I think they came to a compromise verdict."

Despite hearing testimony from an expert forensic psychiatrist on how most assaults are not committed by strangers and how victims rarely respond by fighting back, the jurors could not bring themselves to agree on a sweeping conviction.

“Our collective cultural understanding of consent is very underdeveloped,” says Tina Tchen, president and CEO of Time’s Up, an advocacy group launched in 2018 by hundreds of Hollywood’s leading women amid #MeToo’s explosion.

“There are a lot of lessons here,” Tchen tells TIME.

In an interview Tuesday morning, Haleyi—whose surname appeared as Haley in some court documents—agreed, saying there’s more society needs to learn about the reality of sexual assault and how victims behave. “It’s not always just a stranger,” she said. “It’s very often somebody that the person knows, and with that comes an entire other layer of processing.”

The acquittals are a small victory for Weinstein’s defense lawyers, who had argued the sexual encounters were consensual. They successfully chipped away at the prosecution’s case by calling witnesses to testify that some of the women who’d accused Weinstein of misconduct often maintained cordial, even friendly, relationships with him. The accusers, the defense team argued, did not behave like women who were terrified of Weinstein or who felt threatened by him.

While delivering her closing statements, defense attorney and #MeToo critic Donna Rotunno urged jurors to look beyond the movement and make what she considered the unpopular but correct call: that Weinstein was not the monster prosecutors made him out to be.

The mixed verdict suggests the jury doubted some elements of Mann’s testimony and the testimony of one of the prosecution’s star witnesses, Annabella Sciorra. Mann testified that she was in a relationship with Weinstein and remained in it because she was afraid of him. Sciorra, an Emmy-nominated actor best known for her role on “The Sopranos,” claimed Weinstein raped her in the early 1990s. The jury could not convict Weinstein of either predatory sexual assault charge unless they believed Sciorra.

“Gutted for my dear friend Annabella Sciorra who told the truth!” tweeted actor Rosie Perez, who took the stand to tell jurors about the moment Sciorra told her she had been raped. “This is not enough.”

"For once he will know what it's like to have power wrapped around his neck."

At a news conference Tuesday in Los Angeles, where Weinstein faces additional sex charges, actor Sarah Ann Masse said it was “disappointing” not to secure a guilty verdict across the board. Still, both Perez and Masse said the convictions were a triumph for silence breakers.

Because Weinstein still faces the charges in California after his March 11 sentencing in New York, #MeToo advocates say this is only the beginning of a movement that has already changed the norms of how sexual harassment is handled in workplaces and led to changes in sexual assault legislation.

Since 2017, at least 15 states have passed new protections to better address sexual harassment and assault, according to advocacy groups. New York and Washington state have extended statutes of limitations for certain rape and sexual assault cases, giving victims more time to pursue justice, while California eliminated its statute of limitations for rape in 2016.

“[Weinstein’s] spending tonight in jail,” Tchen said Monday, “and statistically speaking, only five in every 1,000 sexual assault perpetrators are in that position.”

“That is why,” she adds, “when you see that verdict in that context, this is a huge victory.”

The convictions are also viewed as an achievement given the power that Weinstein is known to have wielded over those who defied him in the film industry. They were “not a referendum on #MeToo,” McGowan insisted.

“This is taking out the trash,” she said.

For Gruber, the mixed verdict wasn’t surprising given the magnitude of the predatory sexual assault charges and how old some of the claims were, including Sciorra’s. Gruber praised the impact of #MeToo, in how it has brought accountability to some men who abused their power, but she warned against making more of the verdict.

“I think because of the high-profile nature of this case, people take it as though an acquittal would mean we’re still in the dark ages and that a conviction is symbolic that we’ve now moved into the modern era,” says Gruber, who is a sexual assault survivor.

“I’m just not sure of that,” she adds. “I think it just reflected this jury’s consideration in this case and not much more.”

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