Weinstein’s trial outcome a watershed moment Prosecutors didn't shy away from messiness that plagues sexual assault cases

“Harvey Weinstein jury has reached a verdict.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/02/2020 (1192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“Harvey Weinstein jury has reached a verdict.”

Like so many others on Monday morning, I held my breath and hit refresh on Twitter, anxious to hear how the New York City jury found — and, truthfully, steeled myself for an acquittal. (The opening paragraph from my column about the Jian Ghomeshi verdict in 2016: “Well, we all knew how this one would end. A court drama with a predictable ending.”)

And so, when Weinstein was convicted of criminal sexual act in the first degree and of third-degree rape, I was stunned. A man, held accountable. No longer is he Harvey Weinstein, disgraced film producer. He is officially Harvey Weinstein, convicted rapist.

He faces a possible sentence of anywhere between five and 29 years. He is 67.

I’m far from the only woman who was floored by the guilty verdict. On social media and in my own text messages, women expressed incredulity, relief and gratitude. Of course, it’s not an outright victory. He was still acquitted of the two biggest charges, two counts of predatory sexual assault. But still, Harvey Weinstein is going to jail.

Perhaps the reason the idea of a guilty verdict seemed like an unthinkable reach is because so often in sexual assault cases, it is. Even the Weinstein trial was, as Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, the New York Times reporters who broke the story about Weinstein’s sexual assault allegations, put it, “a long shot.

“Along the way, one accuser had to be dropped from the case amid allegations of police misconduct,” they wrote. “The central victims acknowledged having had consensual sex with the Hollywood producer after being attacked by him, and one had an intimate relationship with him that stretched for several years. Prosecutors almost never try cases in those circumstances, deeming them too messy to win convictions.”

Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers used victim-blaming tactics to discredit women who testified against the movie mogul. (John Minchillo / The Associated Press)

That’s what made this case a landmark one: the prosecutors went for it anyway.

Weinstein’s lawyer, Donna Rotunno, followed the predictable playbook defence lawyers often rely on, painting his accusers as fame-hungry liars, pointing to previous consensual encounters and “friendly and flirtatious” emails. A former friend of Jessica Mann, one of the six accusers who testified at the Weinstein trial, said Mann appeared “normal” on the night Weinstein forced oral sex on her.

Often, in sexual assault cases, the accuser’s credibility is put on trial; victim-blaming was also a tactic Ghomeshi’s lawyer Marie Henein deployed in the former CBC Radio host’s trial. The belief that a rape victim should dress, behave or be a certain way — a “credible” way, a “believable” way — is just one piece of a belief system that prevents survivors from pursuing justice, or even reporting assaults.

And, for a long time, powerful men could use that silence as an assurance policy. They could count on it. If they were Weinstein, they could even try to buy it. Sure, there were open secrets and whisper networks, warnings repeated in hushed tones and prefaced with “you didn’t hear this from me…,” but it wasn’t really until the fall of 2017 that women, tired of being harassed, threatened and abused, took back their voices and said “me too.”

Actor Louisette Geiss leads a news conference today by the "Silence Breakers," a group of women who spoke out about Hollywood producer Weinstein's sexual misconduct, at Los Angeles City Hall. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press files)

The testimonies of Mann, Dawn Dunning, Miriam Haley, Annabella Sciorra, Tarale Wulff and Lauren Young were incredibly courageous, and done at great personal risk. As actress Ashley Judd, the first woman to go on the record about Weinstein’s predation, tweeted: “For the women who testified in this case, and walked through traumatic hell, you did a public service to girls and women everywhere, thank you.”

Monday’s verdict was also watershed because it showed us what’s possible when you have a prosecution team willing to take a long shot, a “messy” rape case — which describes many rape cases — to trial in a way that recognizes there is no perfect victim, and a jury that wasn’t persuaded by rape myths.

Our culture is shifting. The women are talking. And perhaps, one day, justice served won’t be so shocking.

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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