On February 24, 2020, former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of two felony sex crimes by a New York State Supreme Court jury. This guilty verdict is a milestone in the #MeToo movement, and comes thanks to the hard work and testimony by his sex abuse victims. (Trigger Warning: This blog post contains descriptions of sexual assault.)
In 2017, several actresses came together to talk to reporters. They told stories about how, as aspiring actors, they had been taken advantage of by one man, Harvey Weinstein. They said the big-name Hollywood producer had used his power and privilege to convince, coerce, and sometimes force these young hopefuls into sexual encounters they didn’t want.
After more than 2 years, and dozens more women coming forward to add their stories, the #MeToo movement finally resulted in the New York state prosecutors filing criminal charges against Weinstein. But they weren’t as inclusive as many had hoped. Despite police interviewing more than 70 witnesses and investigating at least 14 sexual assault allegations, the case ultimately came down to two sex abuse victims’ sexual abuse claims, and one charge of predatory sexual assault representing Weinstein’s pattern of sexually offensive behavior. In the words of activist Tarana Burke:
“Most of us will never see the inside of the courtroom, but these women got to take the stand, look him in the eye and say, ‘You did this to me.’”
The small scope of the trial is the result of the decades of time and thousands of miles separating the #MeToo survivors and their claims. Most of the actresses who came forward spoke of incidents that happened outside of New York’s jurisdiction. Many others’ allegations were simply too old to meet the New York criminal statute of limitations. To some, that meant the #MeToo movement hung on the ability of a handful of sex assault survivors to tell their story.
The first sex abuse victim to take the stand was Annabella Sciorra, of “The Sopranos”. She was one of those survivors whose stories predated the statute of limitations, but prosecutors asked her to testify to show Weinstein’s pattern of sexual assault and abuse. She described how her relationship with Harvey Weinstein evolved since the early 1990s when she was an up-and-coming actress and he was a young producer. She said he would sometimes make “inappropriate” gestures, like giving her a box of chocolate penises. Then, in late 1993 or early 1994, Weinstein forced himself into her Manhattan apartment and raped her. When she confronted him weeks later, she testified he threatened her, saying, “This remains between you and I.” She never contacted the police, believing what had happened didn’t qualify as rape. But the attack left emotional scars, causing her to drink heavily and cut herself. She reported that Weinstein continued to stalk her for several years after that. In 1997, she testified that he showed up at her hotel room in his underwear, carrying baby oil and a videotape.
The jury also heard from sex abuse victim Mimi Haleyi, a production assistant on “Project Runway” who testified that Weinstein had forced oral sex on her in his TriBeCa apartment in 2006, and from another confidential victim, who was an aspiring actress in 2013 when Weinstein raped her in a Manhattan hotel room. Three other women also told their stories of sexual misconduct to help establish that Weinstein engaged in a pattern of sexual predation. Lucia Evans was originally included as a victim and intended to testify, but her accusations of sexual assault against Weinstein were later dropped from the case. When asked about the trial, she said:
“I am so impressed by the women who participated in the criminal case up through the verdict. Witnessing firsthand many of the obstacles that stood in their way only deepens my appreciation of their courage. I truly wish I was given the opportunity to stand next to them, to see my case through to the end.”
As a powerful public figure, Harvey Weinstein had hired an equally powerful set of criminal defense attorneys. Their job was to poke holes in the victims’ stories and create doubt in the juror’s minds. For Ms. Sciorra, that cross-examination quickly turned to claims that she was lying and victim blaming. The defense attorneys pointed out:
Weinstein’s attorney Damon Cheronis also claimed that the two victims in the case were actually in consensual relationships with the man to further their careers, saying “The truth is, there was nothing nonconsensual about it.”
These tactics are common in sexual abuse cases and take advantage behaviors common to many trauma survivors. Fatima Goss Graves, President of the National Women’s Law Center explained:
“What defense attorneys do is create a narrative that only one type of person could experience sexual violence, and that there is only one type of response. They discount behaviors that are actually really typical in an effort to blame victims.”
For example, traumatic memories are often stored in disjointed, non-linear ways in the victims’ brains. This means that they are often unable to remember important details, or say specifically when and where the incident occurred. They also exploit the power imbalance between victim and abuser, calling out victims for not coming forward sooner, or for not immediately cutting their abusers out of their lives when, in fact, they often feel powerless to do either.
After all the witnesses had testified, the jury was asked to deliberate on three charges: two counts of criminal sexual misconduct, and one count of being a sexual predator. They found Weinstein guilty of the two individual felony sex crimes, but not guilty of the charge based on his pattern of behavior against multiple victimes. Weinstein was taken to jail (after a brief visit to a hospital because of chest pains). He will remain there until he can be sentenced. He could face up to 29 years in prison. Weinstein’s attorneys have already promised to appeal the decision.
Weinstein also still faces similar charges in Los Angeles, California. That indictment was announced on the first day of the New York trial and will likely take time to come to trial. The Weinstein legal team may also be more inclined to settle now that he has already been convicted once.
Sex assault victims need strong advocacy, not just by prosecutors, but by private sex abuse attorneys who understand the cost of seeing a sexual assault claim to its conclusion. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced sexual abuse attorneys know how to do just that. We can meet with you at our headquarters in the heart of New York City, or conference with you remotely, to help navigate the criminal, civil, and regulatory processes needed to help you find justice. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to a sexual abuse attorney.