Weinstein case could influence other sex crime prosecutions

New York prosecutors are hailing Harvey Weinstein's conviction as a pivotal moment that could change the way the legal system views a type of sexual assault case historically considered difficult to prove.

Most of the women who testified against Weinstein stayed in contact with him — and sometimes had consensual sexual encounters with him — after alleged attacks. None promptly reported his crimes. There was little physical evidence to bolster their stories.

The jury convicted anyway, finding the producer guilty of raping one woman in 2013 and sexually assaulting another in 2006.

Harvey Weinstein found guilty in landmark #MeToo moment

"This is a new day," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said after the verdict was announced. "Rape is rape whether the survivor reports within an hour, within a year or perhaps never. It's rape despite the complicated dynamics of power and consent after an assault. It's rape even if there is no physical evidence."

But some women's advocates cautioned that it's too soon to know how much the legal landscape has shifted.

"This is not a signal that our systems and institutions are magically transformed," said Sonia Ossorio, the president of the National Organization for Women's New York chapter, who sat through most of the trial. "This is one case, one man. We've got to keep it in perspective."

If any case seemed to encapsulate the #MeToo reckoning with sexual misconduct, gender dynamics and power as a form of coercion, it was Weinstein's.

Dozens of women who crossed paths with Weinstein through the entertainment industry have said he bullied, pressured, coerced or overpowered them while demanding sexual favors. The alleged encounters took place over many decades, amid movie screenings in Los Angeles, film festivals in Cannes, and business meetings in New York or London.

The New York case involved only six accusers: three directly linked to the charges and three whose testimony was meant to bolster the prosecution case.

Weinstein's defense team argued that the encounters were consensual, if perhaps "transactional": He wanted sex, they wanted access to his power over the film world.

While the law recognizes that people can be assaulted by intimate partners in ongoing relationships, those cases have rarely been prosecuted in the past, because they're difficult to prove, several trial lawyers said. The tide is starting to change, however, as prosecutors take more risks and juries become more aware of the complexities of human behavior.

"This case challenges our notions of what is force in a sexual relationship, what is lack of consent in a sexual relationship," said Paul DerOhannesian, an Albany, New York, defense lawyer, former sex crimes prosecutor and author of a guide to sexual assault trials. He followed the trial coverage and found it telling that one of the first questions from the jury involved the legal definition of "consent" and "forcible compulsion."

Vance initially declined to prosecute Weinstein when a model claimed he'd groped her in 2015. Facing criticism of the 2015 decision after waves of additional women came forward two years later, Vance ultimately took some of their allegations to trial.

One of the first witnesses at trial was an expert on victim behavior, who testified that it isn't unusual for sexual assault victims to continue communicating with their attackers. A decade ago, that type of expert testimony was rarely allowed.

The jury ultimately acquitted Weinstein of two of the most serious counts: one of first-degree rape, and a second charge that he was a sexual predator, linked to the testimony of actress Annabella Sciorra, who said Weinstein barged into her apartment and raped her in the early 1990s.

But Weinstein, 67, still faces the possibility of up to 29 years in prison. He's also facing separate charges in Los Angeles involving two more alleged sexual assault victims.

The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sex crimes unless they grant permission, as Sciorra did.

Criminal defense attorney Richard Kaplan said the New York case could both empower women to come forward and embolden prosecutors to take on tough cases.

"Now there is a roadmap on how you can win this kind of case," he said, predicting more people would come forward.

"There's always the fear of coming forward, you know, going through a trial, getting beat up and humiliated and then not getting that verdict. Now that they see it can be done, I think more people will come forward and definitely empower the movement."

Lawyer Carrie Goldberg represents Weinstein accuser Lucia Evans, whose complaint against him was initially part of the indictment, but Vance's office ultimately dropped her allegations from the case. While Goldberg faults Vance for not sticking with her client, she said the conviction is a "watershed moment" — and a long time coming.

"I hope that prosecutors, all over this country, and all over the world, look at this case and realize that rape trials can be won," Goldberg said, "and that these aren't just 'he said, she said' stories, but they're actually crimes that are winnable and need to be brought."