Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged conduct spurred #MeToo movement, charged with rape, sex abuse

Washington Post

As the front door of a criminal courtroom opened to usher in Harvey Weinstein, the once-powerful movie mogul looked out at the large gathering of lawyers and reporters and, a dazed expression on his face, mouthed one word: "Wow."

Weinstein — in court here Friday to face three felony charges, including first-degree rape — was confronting the public for the first time since dozens of women stepped forward last fall to accuse him of sexual misconduct, spurring the #MeToo movement.

But the moment also offered an opportunity for the public to confront Weinstein, a rare entertainment figure to face criminal charges for alleged sexual misconduct, and by extension to confront the culture of abuse and privilege he came to represent.

The charges against Weinstein, filed Friday morning by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, also included committing a criminal sexual act in the first degree and rape in the third degree. They come after a months-long investigation into incidents involving Weinstein and onetime aspiring actress Lucia Evans in 2004 and an unnamed accuser in 2013.

"This defendant used his position, money and power to lure young women into situations where he was able to violate them sexually," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi told the court.

But while the prosecutor was referring specifically to Weinstein, her remarks echoed wide-ranging experiences by women who say they have felt unable to ward off inappropriate conduct by powerful men or pursue recourse in a legal system that requires incontrovertible evidence.

Still, it was not a simple story. Even as #MeToo advocates saw progress in the fact that Weinstein was now facing criminal charges, they said they wondered what it would take to bring others to justice.

Weinstein, 66, who posted $1 million bail, has denied the charges. "Mr. Weinstein maintains that he has never engaged in any nonconsensual sexual behavior with anyone," lawyer Benjamin Brafman said. "Nothing about today's proceeding changes Mr. Weinstein's position."

Caroline Heldman, an advocate for sexual assault survivors who has worked with accusers of Weinstein and Bill Cosby, was one of many activists to react to the arraignment with mixed feelings, saying that it seems to require some of the worst offenses just to merit a chance at prosecution.

"I'm really happy to see (the Weinstein prosecution) happening, but I do think these cases are still the unicorns of the #MeToo movement and that our legal system is still outdated," said Heldman, an Occidental College professor.

Many of the other media and entertainment figures accused of harassment or sexual misdeeds have avoided prosecution.

Vance had decided not to prosecute Weinstein after Ambra Battilana Gutierrez accused the movie executive of groping her in 2015.

Convicting Weinstein this time may be a tall order.

Absent physical evidence, a case can also become a verbal battle between alleged victim and alleged perpetrator, something a defense attorney could use to sow reasonable doubt, experts said.

"It always is a tough spot when it's one witness against another, my word against your word,'" said Lynne Abraham, former district attorney of Philadelphia.

When accuser and accused already know each other, the defense can further exploit that relationship, she said.

Attorneys for Weinstein have already made that argument. "Mr. Weinstein did not create the casting couch in Hollywood," Brafman told reporters. "My job is not to defend behavior — my job is to defend criminal behavior."

(One issue Weinstein prosecutors are not facing is statute of limitations, which can often expire while victims, possibly traumatized, refrain for years from coming forward. New York did away with the statute of limitations for certain types of sexual assault crimes more than a decade ago.)

Experts also take note of the successful strategy used by prosecutors in the case of Cosby, who was convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault last month in Pennsylvania. A jury could not reach a verdict last summer when only two accusers were allowed to testify. A new jury found him guilty after six accusers testified.

That may offer a template of sorts for Weinstein prosecutors, who could also seek to call witnesses from some of the dozens of other instances of alleged assault that came to light with investigations in the New York Times and the New Yorker last fall.

"There is little question that the presence of multiple accusers in a case enhances the prosecution's chances of success in a sexual assault case," said Dennis McAndrews, a Philadelphia-area lawyer and former prosecutor. "This is particularly important where a person of prominence is involved."

That was the case in the recent trial of disgraced U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted after more than 200 people stepped up to allege abuse.

While no major entertainment figure besides Cosby has been convicted by a court in recent years for sexual misconduct, the industry has imposed accountability far more swiftly, for transgressions ranging from inappropriate comments in the workplace to alleged sexual assault.

Many of the powerful entertainment men accused of misconduct have been disbarred of their power — stripped of their company in Weinstein's case or written out of reruns and future Hollywood deals, in actors' cases.

Others who have faced allegations, such as actors James Franco and Jeffrey Tambor, remain in a kind of professional limbo, not blacklisted from the industry but not exactly welcome. In the absence of criminal charges, Hollywood has taken on a quasi-judicial role.

"The executives who are firing these predators are stepping up to the plate where the justice system has failed," said the artist and actress Lili Bernard, an alleged Cosby victim who has been an outspoken #MeToo activist.

Particularly for a Hollywood community that is accustomed to Weinstein as a powerful figure, the sight of him being led by the arm around a state criminal courtroom was jarring.

The Queens native has produced and distributed some of the most well-known and acclaimed movies of the past 25 years, including "The English Patient," "The King's Speech" and "Pulp Fiction," often employing a hard-charging style to win deals and awards. But wearing a dark jacket over a baby-blue sweater on Friday, he seemed unsure on his feet and gave a mile-long stare as he turned to face the gallery before the proceeding.

Weinstein turned himself in to police carrying several entertainment-related books, including a biography of Elia Kazan. Kazan, the director shunned by Hollywood after supplying names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, saw himself as an unfairly persecuted artist, and Weinstein's message in carrying a book about him was parsed by court observers.

Shortly after the surrender, Illuzzi, the prosecutor, told the court that Weinstein would be "fitted for a monitor, paid for by him, which enables him to be tracked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the court and (prosecution) are allowed to request his whereabouts at any moment."

Brafman was then instructed to turn over Weinstein's passport. The defense lawyer walked over to Illuzzi and handed it to her. His client, one of the country's most famous globe-trotting men, watched as his world grew smaller.

Ohlheiser, Paquette and Zak reported from Washington.

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