Weinstein verdict a 'radical change' in sex assault cases against powerful men, experts say

Harvey Weinstein's conviction was a “huge win” for survivors of sexual violence and showed progress in the #MeToo era, legal analysts said.
Image: Harvey Weinstein leaves Manhattan Criminal Court as jury deliberations begin on Feb. 18, 2020.
Harvey Weinstein leaves Manhattan Criminal Court as jury deliberations begin Feb. 18, 2020.John Taggart / Redux file

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By Daniella Silva

The conviction in the landmark trial against Harvey Weinstein was a “huge win” for survivors of sexual violence and showed progress in the #MeToo era, legal analysts said, despite his acquittal on the two most serious charges.

“Somebody who is wealthy, powerful, influential and connected and who has apparently been getting away with committing crimes against women for a very long time has finally been brought to justice for at least some fraction of his crimes,” Glenn Kirschner, a retired career federal prosecutor and an NBC News legal analyst, said. “Hopefully, this becomes the norm and not the exception.”

Weinstein, 67, was convicted Monday of third-degree rape of Jessica Mann, a former aspiring actress, as well as a count of criminal sexual act in the first degree against Mimi Haley, a former "Project Runway" production assistant.

Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex.

The jury found him not guilty on the two counts of predatory sexual assault, which each carried a sentence of up to life in prison. He was also acquitted on a count of first-degree rape against Mann. He now faces a sentence of five to 25 years on the top count.

Prosecutors also called four other accusers as witnesses to testify about Weinstein's alleged pattern of serial abuse during the over monthlong trial, including "The Sopranos" actress Annabella Sciorra, who has accused Weinstein of raping her in the early 1990s.

Silence Breakers, a group that represents prominent Weinstein accusers, said the verdict was not “true, full justice,” but praised the women who came forward to testify.

“While it is disappointing that today’s outcome does not deliver the true, full justice that so many women deserve, Harvey Weinstein will now forever be known as a convicted serial predator,” the group said. “This conviction would not be possible without the testimony of the courageous women and the many women who have spoken out.”

Legal analysts said jurors also had to consider complex questions of consent and Weinstein’s power in Hollywood, especially in cases where some women continued to have contact with him after the alleged assaults.

“These are very complicated cases,” Cynthia Alksne, a former federal prosecutor and an MSNBC legal analyst, said. “The fact that the jury was willing to separate the baggage and look at the facts and convict him is a huge win. This guy is going to jail for a long time.”

Alksne said that not long ago, prosecutors would not have taken on such cases, even if they believed the victims, because the cases were just not winnable.

She said the fact that the jury, made up of seven men and five women, convicted Weinstein was a “a radical change.”

NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said the prosecution benefited from the fact that they were able to bring in several other women with allegations against Weinstein to establish a pattern of behavior, even though he was not charged in those cases.

"That modern trend with celebrities is to make ample use of these prior bad act witnesses, which is a sign of a change in the times and it’s such a devastating tool against defendants,” he said. He noted that Bill Cosby’s first sexual assault trial ended in a mistrial, but he was convicted in his second trial in which five other women were allowed to testify under a “prior bad acts” rule to establish a pattern. Only one prior bad acts witness was allowed to testify in his first trial.

More than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct or assault.

In his case, jurors acquitted him of the charges that Sciorra's testimony was used to try and establish a pattern of behavior, which Alksne said could be due in part to the age of her allegation. Older cases were much more difficult to prosecute, and the fact that Sciorra could not remember the exact year may have complicated the case for jurors.

“Even if you believe it happened, can you apply the beyond a reasonable doubt standard?” she said.

Kirschner said jurors can struggle with cases where there is not a lot of physical or DNA evidence.

“That’s the single biggest challenge in a case like this,” he said.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who did not pursue sexual assault charges against Weinstein in 2015, said Monday’s verdict showed progress in the criminal justice system for victims of sexual abuse.

“I think this was a very difficult case, a very challenging case and a case that really moved our understanding of what sexual assault is, where it can occur, shattered myths that I think have been part of the criminal justice system for a long time,” he said.