World / Crime & Legal

Harvey Weinstein's 23-year sentence a shot heard around the legal world

Bloomberg

Harvey Weinstein’s 23-year prison sentence was met with gasps in a New York courtroom Wednesday morning.

Now, as Weinstein plans his appeal and Los Angeles County begins extradition proceedings for its own prosecution, lawyers and victims’ advocates say the harsh punishment signals an important shift in the legal landscape for sexual assault cases.

For the #MeToo movement, Weinstein’s conviction last month for forcing oral sex on a young production assistant in 2006 and raping an aspiring actress in 2013 was already a vindication, after decades in which the powerful producer’s attacks were an open secret in Hollywood. That and the tough sentence mean jurors will be more likely to listen to women, even when their allegations are old, and that judges will send a stern message when juries find the witnesses credible.

“The work of the last two years has shifted our culture,” said Fatima Goss Graves, chief executive officer of the National Women’s Law Center. “This sentence is an indication that the usual ways of doing business and the usual ways of treating survivors can change.”

Goss Graves said the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund saw an uptick in interest following last month’s verdict, a testament to its weight.

“People were watching this not just because they cared about the silence breakers,” she said, referring to Weinstein’s accusers, “but because they wondered what would it mean for them.”

Some hope the impact of the verdict and sentence will trickle down to other sexual assault cases, but are cautious. Weinstein’s case got attention for the defendant’s fame and the volume of allegations against him — and for something else.

“These beautiful, high-profile women were probably the only ones with enough credibility and social power to get this going,” said Louise Fitzgerald, who specializes in the psychological effects of sexual harassment. “Will a waitress who’s a single mom get the same attention? Will a Hispanic farm worker raped by her supervisor have the same credibility?”

Fitzgerald, a professor emeritus of gender studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, also warned that the outcome of the Weinstein trial won’t solve an entrenched problem.

“I think it will always be difficult for rape victims to come forward,” she said. “But I do think this signals that justice is possible and will encourage them to do so.”

“It’s a lot of time,” said Frank Perrone, a former prosecutor in New York City’s Queens district attorney’s office. “It’s a death sentence for Harvey Weinstein.”

That is what Weinstein’s lawyers told New York State Supreme Court Justice James Burke in asking for five years, given a client who is 67 and in poor health. They noted that he was cleared of the more serious of two rape charges as well as two counts of predatory sexual assault.

“There are murderers who will get out faster than Harvey Weinstein,” Donna Rotunno, his lead lawyer, said of the 23-year sentence. “That number spoke to the pressure of movements and the public. That number did not speak to the evidence that came out at trial” or “to justice.”

Perrone said any surprise should be over the verdict rather than the sentence.

“This was going to be a very difficult case for jurors to decide,” he said. That was especially so “on these charges, where there was substantial evidence presented that in some instances there were relationships” that continued between Weinstein and his victims.

But “it seems like they really did take a look at the individual charge, at the evidence that was presented,” Perrone said of the seven men and five women on the jury.

Lisa Linsky, the former chief of the Westchester County district attorney’s Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Bureau, said the sentence shows that a judge will take into account the stories of other women who come forward to report abuse, and lets the powerful know they can be held accountable.

“This should give other crime victims the courage to report their offenders,” she said.

After the sentencing Wednesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. left court with the six accusers from the trial and actor Rosie Perez, who testified to back up Annabella Sciorra. They were greeted with cheers and applause from supporters as they walked past a throng of photographers and camera operators.

The women’s testimony “took down a predator and put him behind bars, and gave hope to survivors of sexual violence all across the world,” Vance told a group of reporters.

As for the Los Angeles case, Perrone said he thinks Weinstein will go to trial and won’t take a plea deal, because it could undermine his effort to avoid prison. If he struck a deal with the LA prosecutors and then managed to get his New York conviction overturned, Perrone said, “he may have just agreed to spend two or three years in California” — behind bars.

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