Just before a judge handed down a 23-year prison sentence for his rape and sexual assault conviction, fallen movie mogul Harvey Weinstein addressed the court.
“I’m totally confused,” Weinstein told a packed New York City courtroom.
His confusion would shortly turn to astonishment when State Supreme Court Judge James Burke ordered that Weinstein must serve 23 years in prison – a virtual life sentence for the 67-year-old.
While the #MeToo Movement celebrated the guilty verdicts and sentence as significant victories, Weinstein and his lawyer bristled.
“Things that none of us understood,” Weinstein uttered. “Thousands of men are losing due process. I’m worried about this country. I’m totally confused. I think men are confused about these issues.”
“He never had a fair shake from day one,” said Weinstein’s legal counsel, Donna Rotunno. “That sentence was obscene. I am overcome with anger at that number. I think that number is a cowardly number to give.”
However, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., and many others who have followed the trial since its onset, believed the sentence is completely fair and appropriate.
“We thank the court for imposing a sentence that puts sexual predators and abusive partners in all segments of society on notice,” Vance added. “Rape is rape whether the survivor reports it within the next hour, within a year, or never at all. It’s rape, despite the complicated dynamics of power and consent after an assault.”
Court records, recordings, letters, and witness testimony revealed that some of Weinstein’s continued close relationships with him — including intimate relationships — for years after the incidents that led to his conviction and sentencing.
Weinstein’s representatives have pointed out that the victims even sent him flirtatious emails for several years, and one even tried to introduce Weinstein to her mother and admitted to consensual sexual acts for years after the assault.
Barbara Ziv, an expert forensic psychiatrist that testified for the prosecution, noted that those actions are consistent with the behavior of many victims.
Many have opined that if Weinstein had not been found guilty of the charges on which he was convicted, he was still certainly guilty of raping or assaulting others and will never be tried for those offenses.
What remains troubling for some legal experts, is that the overwhelming negative public opinion regarding Weinstein, including a presumption of guilt based upon stories in the press, may have influenced the jury’s decision.
They argue that Weinstein, like Bill Cosby before him, was pre-judged to be guilty by a jury of his peers, instead of being presumed innocent. This meant a much lower burden of proof for the prosecution – a constitutional no-no.
That presumption of guilt can be scary for anyone, particularly when someone in power like Vance states that the mere allegation of rape should be enough for a conviction.
“It’s rape even if there is no physical evidence,” Vance told media members outside of the courtroom.
Perhaps Vance was simply playing to the #MeToo Movement, which has mobilized over the past several years to both empower women and expose men like Weinstein, who have misused and abused their often vast amounts of power and influence.
#MeToo and its underlying messages are certainly warranted and, in many instances, represent the only outlet available to shed light on illicit practices. However, there is still no standard in place to objectively manage allegations that result in criminal charges.
In the age of social media, when claims can quickly escalate to unfounded accusation, prosecutors have a responsibility to deliver fair and equal justice to both the defendant and the state.
When everyone in the world is just a Google search and click away from thousands of pages of data – much of it false – ensuring that mob mentality will not drive what occurs in the courtroom becomes a challenging job. For prosecutors that serve in elected positions, failing to demonstrate a commitment to “believe the women,” can have its own set of implications.
For now, Weinstein and Bill Cosby remain the only high-profile celebrities convicted of sexual assault or a related charge in the new era. It’s likely that State Supreme Courts in Pennsylvania, where Cosby is pushing for a hearing, and New York, where Weinstein’s case will no doubt end up, will be the next arbiters in what has become a debate about the meaning, practice and execution of justice.
In Cosby’s case, the court could mandate a new trial, with a different judge and prosecutor. For Weinstein, where defense arguments are likely to center around the severity of the sentence received (attorneys not associated with the trial have suggested that a 10- to 15-year sentence for his crimes would’ve been expected), the defense will need to convince the court that the sentence is not justified or that the court was not unduly biased.
“The harsh penalty is further evidence that the court was biased against Weinstein from the beginning,” Rotunno said. “We hope this sentence will speak to the appellate court in a way that will show this has been unfair from the beginning.”
However, standing in opposition to Rotunno’s statements are at least 100 women, including several A-list actresses, who have collectively and individually alleged that Weinstein used the casting couch to harass or assault them sexually.
“If women with that influence and power could be victimized, anyone can,” stated Nora V. Demleitner, a Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia at the start of the trial.
“Also, the types of accusations against Weinstein were so egregious that, as alleged, they easily met the standard of serious crimes. For all these reasons and the fact that we are now witnessing a criminal trial that keeps the case in the news, it is more important than the others,” Demleitner stated.
Sophie Sandberg, the founder of the Instagram channel, “Catcalls of NYC,” said celebrity men had all become symbols in the #MeToo Movement, and that can have a negative impact in many ways.
“The first, it can result in the false impression that we can get rid of all the men who are abusers and fix the problem. Rather, the #MeToo movement should be about changing systemic inequality that results in widespread gender-based sexual harassment on the streets, in workplaces and schools,” Sandberg stated.
“Second, as a result of these celebrities being fired and put on trial, many men feel that they are being targeted and victimized by the #MeToo movement. This can result in retaliation and backlash,” she stated.
Nicole Porter, a professor of law at The University of Toledo College of Law, stated that Weinstein caused the current iteration of the #MeToo movement, but the action is about so much more than Harvey Weinstein or his criminal case.
“In my opinion, the #MeToo movement has had its biggest impact in two ways,” Porter stated. “Getting the public to understand how big of a problem sexual harassment and assault is and getting employers to take sexual harassment in the workplace more seriously,” Porter added.
“I don’t think the outcome of this trial will affect the #MeToo movement,” Porter stated prior to the jury’s verdict. “If he gets convicted, I imagine the majority of the public will be happy about that, although there will be a sizable and likely very vocal minority who might feel like he should have been acquitted.”