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Harvey Weinstein rape conviction overturned by NY appeals court; California conviction remains

Jenny Jarvie, Richard Winton and Stephen Battaglio – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In a dramatic reversal of the nation’s landmark #MeToo trial, a New York appeals court on Thursday overturned the sex assault conviction of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, citing errors by the trial judge.

The state appeals court found, in a 4-3 decision, that the judge who presided over Weinstein’s 2020 trial prejudiced the disgraced Hollywood movie mogul’s case by allowing four women who said Weinstein had assaulted them to serve as witnesses even though their allegations were not part of the case.

The trial judge also made a mistake, the court ruled, in permitting prosecutors to question Weinstein about uncharged and decades-old allegations if he decided to testify.

“It is an abuse of judicial discretion to permit untested allegations of nothing more than bad behavior that destroys a defendant’s character but sheds no light on their credibility as related to the criminal charges lodged against them,” Judge Jenny Rivera wrote for the majority.

The predominantly female panel of judges ordered a new trial, arguing that the “synergistic effect of these errors was not harmless.”

“The only evidence against defendant was the complainants’ testimony, and the result of the court’s rulings, on the one hand, was to bolster their credibility and diminish defendant’s character before the jury,” the court added.

The overturning of Weinstein’s conviction received pushback from the other judges.

“This Court has continued a disturbing trend of overturning juries’ guilty verdicts in cases involving sexual violence,” Judge Madeline Singas wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Singas argued that the court had whitewashed the facts to conform to a he-said/she-said narrative, ignored evidence of Weinstein’s manipulation and premeditation, and failed to recognize that the jury was entitled to consider the defendant’s previous assaults.

Weinstein was also convicted of rape in California, so the New York ruling will have no practical effect on his imprisonment.

Gloria Allred, the attorney who represented the prosecution’s key witness in the New York case, Mimi Haley, said the decision was a “significant step backwards for the ‘Me Too’ movement.”

However, Haley would consider testifying if New York Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg decided to proceed with another trial, Allred said.

“I commend Mimi on her courage and willingness to keep standing up for the truth,” Allred said. “Although victims have lost this battle, they have not lost the war. We will continue to fight for justice for victims both in criminal and civil cases until there is a fair trial — not just for the accused, but also for those who allege that they are victims of sexual predators.”

Emily Tuttle, deputy director of communications and senior advisor for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said it would “do everything in our power to retry this case.”

Attorneys representing some of the women who came forward with allegations against Weinstein moved swiftly to condemn the ruling.

“Today’s decision is a major step back in holding those accountable for acts of sexual violence,” said Douglas H. Wigdor, an attorney who has represented eight women who made allegations against Weinstein, including two of the witnesses at the New York criminal trial.

“Courts routinely admit evidence of other uncharged acts where they assist juries in understanding issues concerning the intent, modus operandi or scheme of the defendant,” Wigdor told The Times. “The jury was instructed on the relevance of this testimony and overturning the verdict is tragic in that it will require the victims to endure yet another trial.”

Courts in California have long allowed the use of witnesses who offer allegations of prior bad acts, according to former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers.

“Prior bad acts evidence can be controversial, and the slim majority of appellate judges [in this case] ruled that the testimony of the other victims was prejudicial because their conduct was not charged,” Rahmani said.

“Prosecutors like prior bad acts evidence, especially in sexual assault cases,” Rahmani added. “Jurors may not believe the testimony of one victim, but it’s hard for them to reject the testimony of multiple victims who tell the same story.”

The Miramax co-founder has been serving a 23-year sentence since he was convicted in 2020 of rape and a felony sex crime after allegedly assaulting former production assistant Mimi Haley and once-aspiring actress Jessica Mann.

Weinstein, who has denied all wrongdoing, appealed in 2021, citing a series of issues, including errors at trial.

In the 160-page appeal, Weinstein’s legal team once again attacked the credibility of the six women who testified at his 2020 trial in lower Manhattan. While most of the allegations were at least corroborated by the testimony of others whom the women told of the alleged assaults around the time they were alleged to have taken place, Weinstein’s legal team questioned why they stayed in contact with the mogul — or in some cases, continued having sex with him — after the alleged crimes.

In late 2022, a Los Angeles jury also convicted Weinstein of one count of sexual assault in connection with a 2013 attack on a woman inside a Beverly Hills hotel. Weinstein had been charged with sexual assault or misconduct against five women in that case, including Jennifer Siebel Newsom, but jurors deadlocked or acquitted on the rest of the charges.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lisa Lench sentenced Weinstein to 16 years in prison for that conviction, to be served concurrently with his New York sentence. After both trials, he was slated to be in prison until the 2050s.

Weinstein has also appealed his Los Angeles conviction, again taking aim at the use of testimony from so-called “prior bad acts witnesses,” who accused him of sexual misconduct that had not been criminally charged in Los Angeles.

David Ring, an attorney who represents Evgeniya Chernyshova, who was Jane Doe 1 in the criminal proceedings brought against Weinstein in Los Angeles, said his client was disappointed that Weinstein’s New York criminal conviction was overturned.

“However, both she and I are confident that Weinstein’s Los Angeles conviction for rape will be upheld,” he said. “As the only victim who has now obtained a criminal conviction against Weinstein, she will continue to stand tall and do whatever necessary to obtain justice not only for herself but for all victims.”

One of Weinstein’s defense attorneys in his Los Angeles case, Mark Werksman, celebrated the New York ruling as “a great outcome and the right result.”

“We faced the same fundamental unfairness in the Los Angeles case, where the judge let the jury hear about four uncharged allegations of sexual assault,” Werksman said. “Harvey was subjected to a firehose of uncharged and incredible allegations which destroyed his right to a fair trial on the charges in the indictment. The case here should be reversed for the same reasons the New York case was reversed.”

California law, however, allows accusers to testify as witnesses even if their own cases never resulted in charges.

The testimony is admissible due to a change in California evidence law in 1996 that allows witnesses to demonstrate an alleged pattern of behavior or propensity to commit a crime, said Dmitry Gorin, a former L.A. sex-crimes prosecutor. Before the change, California’s law was extremely narrow like New York’s, he said.

Now, prosecutors’ use of prior bad acts testimony in California is so prevalent that police will still investigate sex assault allegations that cannot be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations because they can still be used as evidence if an allegation that can be prosecuted is ever made.

“Very, very few prior bad acts appeals succeed in California,” Gorin said. “The law on admitting prior sexual assault evidence in California is very broad, and the judge’s decision to let that evidence in can be challenged as an abuse of discretion.”

While New York and California have different rules governing testimony in sexual assault cases, where often victims don’t come forward until long after the statute of limitations has run out, some legal experts say New York’s rules provide a needed layer of protection for defendants.

“You could think of New York as a dinosaur, but I think of it as New York being very vigilant of protecting the civil rights of defendants,” said Daniel Medwed, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern who used to be a criminal appellate attorney in New York.

“It’s a traditional view, maybe it’s a lingering civil libertarian view that the jury punishes someone not for who they are alleged to be, but what they’ve done in this case,” Medwed added. “Loosening the rules of evidence could be a slippery slope to an erosion of all our rights.”

Weinstein, alongside his brother Bob, created a show business empire through their entertainment company Miramax. They revolutionized the movie industry with their ability to market independent films such as “sex, lies and videotape,” “Pulp Fiction” and Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love” into box office hits.

Along the way, there were whispers throughout the entertainment industry that Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator. The allegations finally became public in October 2017, when investigations by the New York Times and the New Yorker revealed accounts of sexual abuse from women who dealt with Weinstein over the years.

The mogul denied the claims. But the accusations continued to mount, with dozens of more women coming forward. The stories involving a perpetrator with Weinstein’s larger-than-life Hollywood profile opened the door to a national conversation on sexual harassment and abuse of women in the workplace that became known as the #MeToo movement.

Some attorneys for women argue that the New York appellate ruling demonstrates that, even with the attention that the #MeToo movement generated, there are still obstacles for victims seeking justice.

“The ruling shows how far we still have to go to protect women and punish their rapists and abusers,” said Nancy Erica Smith, the employment attorney who handled former anchor Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Fox News. “How could the fact that the defendant engaged in the same modus operandi with numerous women, only a few of which were allowed to testify and who were all subjected to vigorous cross-examination, not be relevant to the jury?” Smith added. “I’m sure many victims of sexual violence are devastated today.”

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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