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‘One of those days when the whole world changes’: Advocates hail Weinstein conviction as a breakthrough

From left, Annabella Sciorra, Mimi Haleyi and Jessica Mann, the three women whose accusations against Harvey Weinstein led to his conviction for sexual assault. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images; Seth Wenig/AP; David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

They were the kind of witnesses who were once avoided by prosecutors, torn to shreds by defense attorneys and regarded with skepticism by jurors.

Some of the women who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault had been friendly with him, and some remained cordial or even intimate with him after their assaults. They waited years before reporting the crimes, and then could offer no forensic evidence of violence. Specific details of the memories they recounted were sometimes fuzzy and inconsistent.

But on Monday, their testimony against the fallen Hollywood mogul helped cinch a guilty verdict that could send him to prison for up to 29 years. It was not just a stunning outcome for a case that had become a potent symbol of the #MeToo movement but also a sign of a striking shift toward a more sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of sexual assault and the complex effect of trauma on victims.

“This is one of those days when the whole world changes,” said Jane Manning, a former sex-crimes prosecutor in New York and director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project. “A sexual predator who was so powerful that he thought he could never be touched has just been held accountable.”

“A new era of justice,” proclaimed the leaders of Time’s Up, an organization that pushes for harassment-free workplaces.

A jury in New York determined that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted to women in separate incidents. (Video: The Washington Post)

Weinstein once stood as a dominant force in the entertainment industry, a film producer who helped shape Oscar races and could make or break careers. Then a pair of explosive investigations published by the New York Times and the New Yorker in October 2017 detailed allegations of harassment and criminal sexual abuse that had taken place over decades. His accusers included high-profile Hollywood actresses who opened up about incidents long kept secret, and inspired numerous others to come forward with sexual misconduct claims against other prominent men, including Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Louis C.K., and prompted a larger cultural conversation about power and sexism.

Those stories had impact — Weinstein was fired from his production company and has been shunned by the industry — but many were doubtful that the accusers would ever find justice in a courtroom.

Harvey Weinstein’s conviction allowed victims to have messy stories. That’s revolutionary.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at Northwestern University, noted that most sexual assault cases that enter the legal system are more likely to fit the stereotypical “stranger rape” paradigm — involving a woman who is assaulted by someone she doesn’t know, resulting in apparent physical injury and, potentially, DNA evidence.

The Weinstein case, in contrast, presented a far more complicated portrait of sexual violence — and the fact that New York prosecutors even filed charges against him is “extraordinary,” she said.

Most sexual assault “is rarely reported, and when it gets reported it often does not result in an arrest, much less a prosecution or a conviction,” said Tuerkheimer, who is a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan. “If we look out at the landscape of sexual assault, I think it has to count as progress that this kind of case, these kinds of allegations, ended up being pursued.”

The criminal charges in New York involved allegations from three women: former production assistant Mimi Haleyi, actress Annabella Sciorra, and Jessica Mann, a former acting hopeful with whom Weinstein had a five-year relationship. Three other accusers testified as supporting witnesses. The jury found Weinstein guilty of forcing a sex act on Haleyi in July 2006 and raping Mann in 2013. He still faces rape and sexual battery charges filed by prosecutors in Los Angeles on the first day of his Manhattan trial.

Laura Brevetti, a former federal prosecutor who has also handled sex crimes at the state level, said she was particularly struck that Weinstein was found guilty of raping Mann, who had said that the assault occurred during her long-term relationship with Weinstein. The defense introduced several flattering notes that Mann had written to Weinstein, aiming to undermine her credibility.

“Years ago when I was prosecuting sex crimes, we would almost think that would make it impossible to convince a jury” to convict, Brevetti said. “People’s attitudes have grown and developed, and so it may be less a surprise, but still I think even at this point in the evolution of our thinking, I was surprised by that.”

Harvey Weinstein accuser Jessica Mann’s dramatic testimony is a new kind of test in sex-crime trials

Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, an anti-sexual-violence organization, saw the verdict as a heartening indication that the public “is understanding the nature of this crime, and the way that perpetrators go about it and are able to do it with impunity for so long.” He said he hoped that survivors who had followed the trial would feel encouraged to come forward, “knowing that juries — and society — will believe them.”

Weinstein’s conviction comes two years after Bill Cosby’s, the first high-profile trial of the #MeToo era. In both instances, jurors heard from several women whose accusations were not included in the criminal charges that the men faced. Paul DerOhannesian II, a New York defense attorney and former sex-crimes prosecutor who wrote a two-volume text on sexual assault trials, said the use of supporting witnesses like this makes these cases notable.

But he also cautioned against viewing one verdict as signaling a sea change.

“What’s shaping everyday cases? Are they being brought? What are juries doing? What are prosecutors doing? I don’t think [the Weinstein verdict] answers those questions,” he said. “But when these cases develop, it promotes discussion and dialogue, and that’s important. It also promotes a legal discussion with the issues on appeal.”

Manning, of the Women’s Equal Justice Project, believes that the legal system is ultimately shaped by the evolution of our culture and that Weinstein’s verdict is proof of this — even if the transformation happens slowly.

“In the past two years, our culture has seen a momentous shift, and today that shift reached the courtroom,” Manning said. “We shouldn’t rest easy in the notion that everything is fine now: Look what it took for this man to be brought to trial, look how many women he got away with abusing, look how many women were further harmed by prosecutors before the D.A.’s office was forced to do the right thing. We still have a lot of work to do to create a criminal justice system that delivers justice to all women, including the most marginalized.”

But, she added: “Today was one heck of a start.”