New York appeals court overturns Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction

25 April 2024, 17:24

Sexual Misconduct-Harvey Weinstein
Sexual Misconduct-Harvey Weinstein. Picture: PA

He will remain imprisoned because he was convicted in Los Angeles in 2022 of another rape and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

New York’s highest court has overturned Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction, finding the judge at the landmark #MeToo trial prejudiced the ex-movie mogul with improper rulings, including a decision to let women testify about allegations that were not part of the case.

“We conclude that the trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts against persons other than the complainants of the underlying crimes,” the court’s four-three decision said.

“The remedy for these egregious errors is a new trial.”

The state Court of Appeals ruling reopens a painful chapter in America’s reckoning with sexual misconduct by powerful figures — an era that began in 2017 with a flood of allegations against Weinstein.

His accusers could again be forced to relive their traumas on the witness stand.

The court’s majority said “it is an abuse of judicial discretion to permit untested allegations of nothing more than bad behaviour that destroys a defendant’s character but sheds no light on their credibility as related to the criminal charges lodged against them”.

Sexual Misconduct Weinstein
New York’s highest court has overturned Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction and ordered a new trial. (Seth Wenig/AP)

In a stinging dissent, Judge Madeline Singas wrote that the majority was “whitewashing the facts to conform to a he-said/she-said narrative”, and said the Court of Appeals was continuing a “disturbing trend of overturning juries’ guilty verdicts in cases involving sexual violence”.

“The majority’s determination perpetuates outdated notions of sexual violence and allows predators to escape accountability,” Judge Singas wrote.

Weinstein, 72, has been serving a 23-year sentence in a New York prison following his conviction on charges of criminal sex act for forcibly performing oral sex on a TV and film production assistant in 2006 and rape in the third degree for an attack on an aspiring actress in 2013.

He will remain imprisoned because he was convicted in Los Angeles in 2022 of another rape and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Weinstein was acquitted in Los Angeles on charges involving one of the women who testified in New York.

Douglas H. Wigdor, who has represented eight Harvey Weinstein accusers including two witnesses at the New York criminal trial, called the ruling “a major step back in holding those accountable for acts of sexual violence”.

Sexual Misconduct Weinstein
The ruling reopens a painful chapter in America’s reckoning with sexual misconduct by powerful figures (Craig Ruttle/AP)

“Courts routinely admit evidence of other uncharged acts where they assist juries in understanding issues concerning the modus operandi or scheme of the defendant.

“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,” Mr Wigdor said in a statement.

Debra Katz, the prominent civil rights and #MeToo attorney who represented several Weinstein accusers, said her clients are “feeling gutted” by the ruling, but that she believed, and was telling them, that their testimony had changed the world.

“People continue to come forward, people continue to support other victims who’ve reported sexual assault and violence, and I truly believe there’s no going back from that,” Katz said, predicting that Weinstein would be convicted again at a retrial.

Weinstein’s lawyers argued Judge James Burke’s rulings in favour of the prosecution turned the trial into “1-800-GET-HARVEY”.

The reversal of Weinstein’s conviction is the second major #MeToo setback in the last two years, after the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a Pennsylvania court decision to throw out Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction.

Weinstein’s conviction stood for more than four years, heralded by activists and advocates as a milestone achievement, but dissected just as quickly by his lawyers and, later, the Court of Appeals when it heard arguments on the matter in February.

Allegations against Weinstein, the once powerful and feared studio boss behind such Oscar winners as Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare In Love, ushered in the #MeToo movement.

Sexual Misconduct Weinstein
Weinstein’s conviction stood for more than four years (Seth Wenig/AP)

Dozens of women came forward to accuse Weinstein, including famous actresses such as Ashley Judd and Uma Thurman. His New York trial drew intense publicity, with protesters chanting “rapist” outside the courthouse.

Weinstein is incarcerated in New York at the Mohawk Correctional Facility, about 100 miles north west of Albany.

He maintains his innocence. He contends any sexual activity was consensual.

Weinstein lawyer Arthur Aidala argued before the appeals court in February that Judge Burke swayed the trial by allowing three women to testify about allegations that were not part of the case and by giving prosecutors permission to confront Weinstein, if he had testified, about his long history of brutish behaviour.

Mr Aidala argued the extra testimony went beyond the normally allowable details about motive, opportunity, intent or a common scheme or plan, and essentially put Weinstein on trial for crimes he was not charged with.

Weinstein wanted to testify, but opted not to because Judge Burke’s ruling would have meant answering questions about more than two-dozen alleged acts of misbehaviour dating back four decades, Mr Aidala said.

They included fighting with his movie producer brother, flipping over a table in anger and snapping at waiters and yelling at his assistants.

“We had a defendant who was begging to tell his side of the story. It’s a he-said, she-said case, and he’s saying ‘that’s not how it happened. Let me tell you how I did it’,” Mr Aidala argued.

Instead, the jurors heard evidence of Weinstein’s prior bad behaviour that “had nothing to do with truth and veracity. It was all ‘he’s a bad guy’”.

Mr Aidala also took issue with Judge Burke’s refusal to remove a juror who had written a novel involving predatory older men, a topic the defence lawyer argued too closely resembled the issues in Weinstein’s case.

A lawyer for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, argued that the judge‘s rulings were proper and that the extra evidence and testimony he allowed was important to provide jurors context about Weinstein’s behaviour and the way he interacted with women.

“Defendant’s argument was that they had a consensual and loving relationship both before and after the charged incidents,” Appellate Chief Steven Wu argued, referring to one of the women Weinstein was charged with assaulting.

The additional testimony “just rebutted that characterisation completely”.

Mr Wu said Weinstein’s acquittal on the most serious charges — two counts of predatory sexual assault and a first-degree rape charge involving actor Annabella Sciorra’s allegations of a mid-1990s rape — showed jurors were paying attention and they were not confused or overwhelmed by the additional testimony.

The Associated Press does not generally identify people alleging sexual assault unless they consent to be named; Ms Sciorra has spoken publicly about her allegations.

The Court of Appeals agreed last year to take Weinstein’s case after an intermediate appeals court upheld his conviction. Prior to their ruling, judges on the lower appellate court had raised doubts about Judge Burke’s conduct during oral arguments.

One observed that Judge Burke had let prosecutors pile on with “incredibly prejudicial testimony” from additional witnesses.

Judge Burke’s term expired at the end of 2022. He was not reappointed and is no longer a judge.

In appealing, Weinstein’s lawyers sought a new trial, but only for the criminal sexual act charge. They argued the rape charge could not be retried because it involves alleged conduct outside the statute of limitations.

By Press Association

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