Harvey Weinstein’s Conviction Overturned by NY Appeals Court: Key Takeaways

In a 4-to-3 decision on Thursday, New York’s highest court overturned Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 conviction on felony sex crime charges, a reversal that horrified and dismayed many of the women whose decision to speak out against Mr. Weinstein, a prominent Hollywood producer, accelerated the #MeToo movement.

The New York Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Weinstein’s defense team that the trial judge who presided over the sex crimes case in Manhattan, Justice James Burke, made a critical error when he let prosecutors call as witnesses several women who testified that Mr. Weinstein had assaulted them, even though none of those allegations had led to charges.

The women became known as Molineux witnesses, a term that refers to trial witnesses who are allowed to testify about criminal acts that the defendant has not been charged with committing. In writing for the majority, Judge Jenny Rivera said permitting such testimony in Mr. Weinstein’s case had served to wrongly “diminish defendant’s character before the jury.”

The ruling, four years after Mr. Weinstein was convicted of forcibly performing oral sex on a production assistant and of raping an actress, did not surprise many legal analysts who had questioned whether prosecutors had taken too big a risk in their efforts to win over the jury.

In its decision, the court came to the conclusion that prosecutors had done just that and, along with Justice Burke, had violated a central tenet of criminal trials: Defendants should be judged only on the charges against them.

Here are five takeaways from the court’s ruling:

The court said the trial’s fairness had been compromised by two key prosecution strategies: the use of Molineux witnesses and the prosecutors’ disclosure that if Mr. Weinstein took the stand in his own defense, they would ask him about dozens of allegations of other crimes and boorish, frightening behavior.

Before the trial, during what is known as a Sandoval hearing, Justice Burke said he would let prosecutors question Mr. Weinstein about 28 allegations that included physically attacking his brother, threatening to cut off a colleague’s genitals with gardening shears, throwing a table of food, and screaming and cursing at hotel restaurant staff after they told him the kitchen was closed.

That threat made it impossible for Mr. Weinstein to take the stand even though he was “begging” to testify in his own defense, his lawyer, Arthur Aidala, said during oral arguments before the Court of Appeals in February.

In its majority opinion, the court agreed.

“The threat of a cross-examination highlighting these untested allegations undermined defendant’s right to testify,” Judge Rivera wrote. “The remedy for these egregious errors is a new trial.”

Three judges — Madeline Singas, Anthony Cannataro and Michael J. Garcia — dissented in a pair of scathing opinions that accused the majority of continuing “a disturbing trend of overturning juries’ guilty verdicts in cases involving sexual violence.”

The judges said the court had ignored evidence that the Molineux witnesses had established: that Mr. Weinstein had displayed a pattern of coercion and manipulation.

Judge Singas said the ruling would make it harder to use such witnesses in future sexual assault cases.

“Men who serially sexually exploit their power over women — especially the most vulnerable groups in society — will reap the benefit of today’s decision,” she wrote.

Judge Cannataro said the additional witnesses the prosecution had presented had helped upend the still-pervasive notion that a sexual assault must involve “the stereotypical stranger in a dark alley who isolates his victim or waits for her to be alone before launching a violent assault.”

The case clearly caused tension among the court, evident in a series of back-and-forth statements between the judges, with the majority defending itself against the dissenters’ claims that the ruling weakened the ability of accusers to push their cases through the criminal court system.

“We do not ‘shut eyes to the enduring effect of rape culture on notions of consent, and intent,’” Judge Rivera wrote, referring to part of Judge Singas’s dissent. “On the contrary, consistent with our judicial role, our analysis is grounded on bedrock principles of evidence and the defendant’s constitutional right to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial.”

Dawn Dunning, one of the Molineux witnesses who testified against Mr. Weinstein, said she was asked after the ruling if she regretted testifying.

“My answer is a resounding ‘no,’” she said in a statement. “I am a stronger person for having done so, and I know that other women found strength and courage because I and other Weinstein survivors confronted him publicly. The culture has changed, and I am confident that there is no going back.”

She and others encouraged Alvin L. Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, to retry the case. The 2020 case was tried under Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Mr. Bragg’s predecessor. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Bragg said that he would retry the case.

Ashley Judd, the first actress to come forward with allegations against Mr. Weinstein, called the news “unfair to survivors.”

“We still live in our truth,” she said. “And we know what happened.”

Ms. Judd appeared with several other sexual assault survivors and activists on Thursday at a hastily arranged news conference on the 29th floor of the Millennium Hilton in Midtown.

Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, said one of the overarching goals of the movement — to get the court system to take sexual assault cases more seriously — is “long, strategic and thoughtful.”

“The bad thing about survivors is there are so many of us,” she said. “But the good thing about survivors is that there are so many of us.”

Mr. Weinstein, who had been serving a 23-year sentence at Mohawk Correctional Facility in upstate New York, learned about the decision after someone at the prison showed him a news report about the ruling, according to his lawyer, Mr. Aidala.

He talked to Mr. Aidala just after 10 a.m., about an hour after the ruling came down.

Mr. Aidala said Mr. Weinstein “wasn’t emotional, like crying,” but he was “very gracious, very grateful.”

Even with the conviction overturned, Mr. Weinstein is not a free man. He is still facing a 16-year sentence in California, where a jury convicted him in 2022 of raping a woman in a Beverly Hills hotel. He was to serve that term after his New York sentence. Now, he could be transferred to California, but he will most likely be transferred from state prison to Rikers Island, the jail complex in New York City, as he waits for Mr. Bragg to decide whether to push for another trial.

After Thursday’s decision came down, Mr. Weinstein’s lawyer in California, Jennifer Bonjean, said she expected the ruling to help him when he appeals his California conviction on May 20.

A jury in Los Angeles Superior Court deadlocked on charges of sexual battery by restraint, forcible oral copulation and forcible rape in December 2022. Those charges were related to accusations brought by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary filmmaker and the wife of Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, and Lauren Young, a model and screenwriter.

But the jury found Mr. Weinstein guilty on three other counts — rape, forcible oral sex and sexual penetration — involving an Italian actress who testified that he attacked her in a hotel room in 2013. The jury acquitted Mr. Weinstein of one count of sexual battery involving a massage therapist.

In that case, as in New York, prosecutors were allowed to use witnesses who accused Mr. Weinstein of sex crimes that he had not been charged with. However, the laws around such witnesses are different in California.

Jurors in the California trial were “overwhelmed with this bad character evidence that was not legitimate, that tainted the whole trial in California from our perspective,” Ms. Bonjean said.

Jodi Kantor, Jan Ransom, Chelsia Rose Marcius and Hurubie Meko contributed reporting.

#Harvey #Weinsteins #Conviction #Overturned #Appeals #Court #Key #Takeaways

About The Author

Leave a Comment