Bill Cosby was released from prison when his conviction of drugging and assaulting a woman was overturned. Midfielder Deshaun Watson has landed a record $230 million contract, despite an investigation into allegations that he assaulted 22 women. Celebrity chef Mario Batali was acquitted this week on just the second day of his sexual assault trial in Boston.
Nearly five years into the #MeToo era, former prosecutors, legal experts and victim advocates say prosecuting cases of sexual misconduct has never been easier than it was before the account that ignited a storm of accusations against seemingly untouchable powerful men.
Emily Martin, vice president of the National Center for Women’s Law, a Washington, D.C.-based institution, said cases like Batali’s, if nothing else, reinforce how the criminal justice system remains a “very imperfect tool” for meeting the needs of survivors. Collection.
“Not getting a criminal conviction doesn’t mean the abuse didn’t happen or that it’s okay,” she said. “Sexual misconduct is often very difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt, especially given the gender stereotypes that lead many people to be particularly distrustful when women share their experiences of sexual assault.”
Ian Bollumbaum, the assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, who helped in Batali’s trial, declined to comment on the case on Wednesday specifically, but said sexual assault cases are among the most difficult to prosecute.
“Sexual assault survivors are still less trusted than any other type of crime victim,” he said. “That’s the perception we’ve always fought against. Part of it is public attitudes, part of it is the private nature of the crime in most cases.”
Bollumbaum said accusing someone of wealth or status only adds to the challenge due to increased public interest and increased scrutiny of the victim’s alleged motives.
“We are not afraid to raise difficult cases if they are supported by evidence,” he added. “And hopefully, survivors won’t be deterred from progressing either.”
Batali’s case also reinforces how important the defendant’s credibility is in a misconduct case, especially when there is little evidence or witnesses to support allegations, says Lori Levinson, a former California federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Batali, the 61-year-old former Food Network personality, was accused of forcefully kissing and groping a woman while she was taking a selfie in a bar in 2017. Boston prosecutors have relied largely on photos taken at the bar that night and the testimony of the now 32-year-old. An old software company worker accused of misconduct.
But Batali’s lawyers have considered the woman’s pending civil lawsuit against Batali, which seeks damages in excess of US$50,000, as well as her recent admission that she tried to get out of jury duty in another criminal case by claiming she was a fortune teller and, in a separate incident, documents Forged lease contract just to get rid of paying $200 gym fees.
“These issues are not going to be easy at all,” Levinson said. “But even in this ‘me too’ age, you need reliable victims.”
Levinson hopes that Batali’s ruling will serve as a cautionary reminder of abuse to survivors that they will always be held to higher standards, especially in high-profile cases.
“There is more temptation in these cases to get off track, and in doing so, you undermine the credibility of your case,” Levinson said. “The whole nature of celebrity leads victims to do things like offer to sell their story or demand money or somehow provoke what happened.”
But Stuart Ryan, the former assistant attorney general in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, who helped prosecute Cosby, said a sexual assault survivor also seeking damages in a civil lawsuit should not be viewed differently from someone who was hit by a drunk driver suing the defendant while facing criminal charges.
He also stressed that the rate of false reports of sexual assault is “accurate” compared to “a much larger proportion of survivors” who reported no assault at all.
“One of the reasons, unfortunately, is the kind of tactics used here, questioning the motives of a survivor with questions wholly unrelated to whether or not sexual assault actually occurred,” Ryan said of Batali’s defense strategy.
The acquittal verdict in Batali’s case parallels another high-profile case of the #MeToo campaign in Massachusetts, which collapsed due to issues involving the accused.
In 2019, prosecutors were forced to drop charges of indecent assault and battery against actor Kevin Spacey after the teenage defendant refused to testify about being groped by the “House of Cards” star while he was a courier at a bar in Nantucket.
Meanwhile, actress Cuba Gooding Jr. is preparing to avoid prison sentence after pleading guilty last month to forcibly kissing a female worker at a New York City nightclub in 2018.
Even Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s #MeToo conviction in 2020 may be in doubt, as a New York court is expected to rule on his appeal soon.
“Sometimes since the Weinstein trial people think we’re in a different time,” said Dallas attorney Michelle Simpson Twiggle, who has represented gymnasts who were assaulted by former U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and other victims.
“People are definitely becoming more aware and survivors are being supported,” she said. “But we are by no means experiencing the level of accountability, especially for people who are very wealthy, very powerful, known to the public.”
Associated Press reporters Mariclair Dell in Philadelphia, Michael Sisak in New York, and Alana Dworkin-Reacher in Boston contributed to this story.