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News / Nation & World

New York appeals court overturns Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction from landmark #MeToo trial

By MICHAEL R. SISAK and DAVE COLLINS, MICHAEL R. SISAK and DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press
Published: April 25, 2024, 8:10am

NEW YORK (AP) — New York’s highest court on Thursday overturned Harvey Weinstein ’s 2020 rape conviction, reversing a landmark ruling of the #MeToo era. The court found the trial judge unfairly allowed testimony against the ex-movie mogul based on allegations that weren’t part of the case.

Weinstein, 72, will remain in prison because he was convicted in Los Angeles in 2022 of another rape. But the New York 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.

While Thursday’s ruling was a blow to #MeToo advocates, they noted it was based on legal technicalities and not an exoneration of Weinstein’s behavior, saying the original trial irrevocably moved the cultural needle on attitudes about sexual assault.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office said it intends to retry Weinstein, and at least one of his accusers said through her lawyer that she would testify again.

The state Court of Appeals overturned Weinstein’s 23-year sentence in a 4-3 decision, saying “the trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts.” It called this “highly prejudicial” and “an abuse of judicial discretion.”

In a stinging dissent, Judge Madeline Singas wrote that the Court of Appeals was continuing a “disturbing trend of overturning juries’ guilty verdicts in cases involving sexual violence.” She said the ruling came at “the expense and safety of women.”

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

Weinstein has been in a New York prison since his conviction 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 was acquitted on the most serious charges — two counts of predatory sexual assault and first-degree rape.

He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in the Los Angeles case.

Weinstein’s lawyers expect Thursday’s court ruling to have a major impact on the appeal of his Los Angeles rape conviction. Their arguments are due May 20.

Jennifer Bonjean, a Weinstein attorney, said the California prosecution also relied on evidence of uncharged conduct alleged against him.

“A jury was told in California that he was convicted in another state for rape,” Bonjean said. “Turns out he shouldn’t have been convicted and it wasn’t a fair conviction. … It interfered with his presumption of innocence in a significant way in California.”

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Weinstein lawyer Arthur Aidala called the Court of Appeals ruling “a tremendous victory for every criminal defendant in the state of New York.”

Attorney 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” and contrary to routine decisions by judges to allow evidence of uncharged acts when they help jurors understand the intent or patterns of a defendant’s criminal behavior.

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. She predicted Weinstein will be convicted at a retrial, and said accusers like her client Dawn Dunning feel great comfort knowing Weinstein will remain behind bars.

Dunning, a former actor who served as a supporting witness at the New York Weinstein trial, said in remarks to The Associated Press conveyed through Katz that she was “shocked” by the ruling and dealing with a range of emotions, including asking herself, “Was it all for naught?”

“It took two years of my life,” Dunning said. “I had to live through it every day. But would I do it again? Yes.”

She said that in confronting Weinstein, she had faced her worst fear and realized he had no power over her.

Weinstein’s conviction in 2020 was 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.

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, who is incarcerated at the Mohawk Correctional Facility, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Albany, maintains his innocence. He contends any sexual activity was consensual.

His lawyers argued on appeal that the trial overseen by Judge James Burke was unfair because three women were allowed to testify about allegations that were not part of the case.

They also appealed the trial judge’s ruling that prosecutors could confront Weinstein over his long history of brutish behavior, including allegations of punching his movie producer brother at a business meeting, snapping at waiters, hiding a woman’s clothes and threatening to cut off a colleague’s genitals with gardening shears.

As a result, Weinstein, who wanted to testify, did not take the stand, Aidala said.

The appeals court labeled the allegations “appalling, shameful, repulsive conduct” but warned that “destroying a defendant’s character under the guise of prosecutorial need” did not justify some trial evidence and testimony.

In a majority opinion written by Judge Jenny Rivera, the Court of Appeals said defendants have a right to be held accountable “only for the crime charged and, thus, allegations of prior bad acts may not be admitted against them for the sole purpose of establishing their propensity for criminality.”

The appeals court said testimony from three individuals about their own unwanted sexual encounters with Weinstein were unnecessary: “That is pure propensity evidence and it is inadmissible.”

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 Burke’s conduct during oral arguments. One observed that Burke had let prosecutors pile on with “incredibly prejudicial testimony” from additional witnesses.

Burke’s term expired at the end of 2022, and he is no longer a judge.

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