Why Weinstein Bombshell Won’t Save Him From Rotting in Prison

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

For years, Harvey Weinstein’s New York City sex crimes conviction signified a landmark legal victory for the #MeToo movement. But while that win went out the window on Thursday morning when the state’s highest court overturned the disgraced producer’s conviction, legal experts say the bombshell does not mean Weinstein will soon see the outside of a jail cell.

And that’s because he still faces 16 years in a California state prison after being convicted of similar charges in Los Angeles in 2022.

“Weinstein was convicted in California and will die in prison anyway, so it’s a question of whether New York prosecutors retry the case. It will have no practical effect,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

In the 4-3 decision, the New York Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the judge who presided over the 2020 trial in New York prejudiced Weinstein by allowing prosecutors to call witnesses who had allegations against the former film titan that were not a part of the case. A Manhattan District Attorney spokesperson told The Daily Beast they plan to retry the case and “remain steadfast in our commitment to survivors of sexual assault.”

At the Los Angeles trial, prosecutors also relied on so-called molineux witnesses, calling eight women to the stand to describe his alleged pattern of predatory behavior between 2003 and 2014. He was ultimately found guilty of sexually assaulting one victim.

But several experts told The Daily Beast that the New York decision doesn’t necessarily throw the Los Angeles conviction in jeopardy.

“The Los Angeles case also relied on prior bad acts witnesses, but judges in California have a lot of discretion when it comes to admitting that kind of evidence,” Rahmani, who has practiced law in California for over two decades, added. “I just think appellate judges in California are less likely to reverse these decisions on appeal.”

Rahmani explained that the prosecution’s decision to use “prior bad act evidence,” or testimony that is not directly entered into evidence for the jury to consider but is used to show a pattern of behavior, is “controversial.”

“Prosecutors like prior bad acts evidence, especially in sexual assault cases,” he added. “Jurors may not believe the testimony of one victim, but it’s hard for them to reject the testimony of multiple victims who tell the same story.”

Former Manhattan prosecutor Deborah Tuerkheimer also noted that the New York decision will not have a direct impact on California law.

“This ruling doesn’t directly impact the CA case, and the statewide law there is somewhat different (re: other “bad acts”), but the appeal will raise similar issues,” she said. “It doesn’t set a legal precedent, and the rules governing the admissibility of this sort of evidence are different in each state.”

Weinstein is slated to appeal his California conviction on May 20. His lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, said in a Thursday press conference that she expects the New York ruling will boost his chances in California. She added that she believes the California trial was “overwhelmed with this bad character evidence that was not legitimate, that tainted the whole trial in California from our perspective.”

In New York, Weinstein was convicted of sexually assaulting former Project Runway production assistant Miriam Haleyi and raping former actress Jessica Mann, though jurors heard from at least four other accusers during the trial. He was cleared of two counts of predatory sexual assault, the most serious charges against him.

“We conclude that the trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts against persons other than the complainants of the underlying crimes because that testimony served no material non-propensity purpose,” the court said.

“The court compounded that error when it ruled that defendant, who had no criminal history, could be cross-examined about those allegations as well as numerous allegations of misconduct that portrayed defendant in a highly prejudicial light.”

But the controversial ruling did not sit well with everyone on the court. In a scathing dissenting opinion, Judge Madeline Singas said it was “whitewashing the facts to conform to a he-said/she-said narrative.” Judge Anthony Cannataro called the decision an “unfortunate step backward” in another dissenting opinion.

“This is how the court system is supposed to work: fundamental due process for everyone without fear or favor,” Duncan Levin, one of Weinstein’s former lawyers and a former federal prosecutor, told The Daily Beast. “The New York Court of Appeals adhered to the basic principles of rule of law, and that was not an easy thing to do here.”

Tuerkheimer pointed out that the Manhattan District Attorney already faced an uphill battle convicting Weinstein the first time—and will have to think about the victims’ wishes if they do decide to go through the process again.

It remains enormously difficult to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in sex crimes cases, “especially because accusers continue to confront high barriers to belief,” Tuerkheimer, who is now a Northwestern University law professor, told The Daily Beast. “This is not just a problem for the criminal justice system; it is a cultural problem.”

“Credibility in numbers—requiring that multiple victims come forward before any are believed—is not a solution, and the overturning of Weinstein’s conviction is powerful illustration of why.”

Silva Megerditchian, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney, noted that the overturned conviction will have a more immediate impact on the #MeToo movement than on Weinstein’s liberation.

“Though his conviction may be overturned—he still must go through a new trial in New York, albeit without the uncharged acts and testimony, coming in his new trial while serving his California prison sentence,” she added.

Megerditchian noted that this ruling may “prevent uncharged acts and those victims from testifying” in other similar #MeToo cases “because of the potential prejudicial effect on a jury.”

“This could have an effect on juries because they will never hear of other past acts that were not criminally charged or related to the current charge—and thus will have to rely on [the] testimony of those charged acts,” the lawyer added. “Hence, prosecutors will not have that additional prior bad act testimony which could sway a jury to guilt when they doubt the veracity of a victim.”

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