In this courtroom sketch, Harvey Weinstein is handcuffed after his guilty verdict in his sexual assault trial at the New York Criminal Court on Monday. Reuters
Clemence Michallon, The Independent
Well, it has happened. After three weeks of proceedings and five days of deliberation, Harvey Weinstein has been partially convicted. He’s facing more charges in Los Angeles, but as far as New York City’s concerned today, Weinstein is guilty of sexual assault and third-degree rape. He has also been acquitted on the most serious charges against him, which could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life.
For those – like me – who have spent the better part of the past month covering, analysing and thinking about the Weinstein trial, this verdict is somewhat of a surprise. The US justice system has a terrible track record when it comes to sexual assault. According to RAINN, one of the leading organisations against sexual violence, 995 out of 1,000 perpetrators walk free, due to under-reporting and other failings at the arrest and prosecution levels.
The case against Weinstein rested exclusively on the testimonies of the women who have come forward against him, accusing him of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of misconduct. Week after week, women – “the silence breakers”, as they have called themselves – took the stand. Intimate details of their lives were offered up for public dissection. Cross-examination was an exhaustive, often brutal process. One woman, who accused Weinstein of raping her twice in 2013, became so distressed on the stand that the judge adjourned her testimony for the rest of the day.
More than 100 women have spoken out against Weinstein. Little by little, in a process guided by how laws are written and halted by statutes of limitations, their testimonies were distilled down to the two main allegations that formed the basis of the New York case. Day after day, one poignant testimony after the other, I was left wondering whether those stories would be enough to sway the jury of seven men and five women tasked with ruling on Weinstein’s fate.
This is how rape and sexual assault cases go. Victims are expected to forego their expectation of privacy, offering up their deepest traumas – profound enough to derail an entire life – to a system that most often ends up failing them. This, after all, is the country in which the father of Brock Turner, the Stanford student convicted in 2016 of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus, publicly worried that his son would have to pay “a steep price ... for 20 minutes of action”. (Chanel Miller, the woman Turner abused, described the aftermath of those “20 minutes of action” as such: “I didn’t talk, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t interact with anyone, and I became isolated from the ones I loved most.”)
This is also the country that gave Brett Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment at the highest court in the land, the US Supreme Court, which rules on oh-so-casual matters such as civil rights, women’s rights, and reproductive rights, even as he was accused of attempted rape. Dr Christine Blasey Ford, the research psychologist and professor who alleged that Kavanaugh assaulted her in 1982, told the Senate Judiciary Committee during that unforgettable September 2018 hearing: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and they’re having fun at my expense.”
But even “indelible in the hippocampus” was no match against Kavanaugh’s self-righteousness, his outraged assurances that he kept detailed calendars in his years as a student, that he liked beer but not too much, and that he wanted, above all, for the Senate Judiciary Committee to treat him like “your father, your husband, your brother or your son”. Kavanaugh denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
Not even two years later, the outcome of the Weinstein trial suggests that we might be well on our way to profound change. Rape and sexual assault trials highlight more than any other proceedings the failings of the judicial process as we know it. The defendant – in this case, Weinstein – cannot be compelled by the prosecution to take the stand. The defence can decide to let them testify, but that almost never happens – taking the stand in your own case is a very good way of getting convicted. This means that in the Weinstein trial as in many other cases, the alleged victims are the ones put on the stand instead. They’re the ones who have to make their case, bolstered by the publicly funded prosecution and undercut by often expensive legal teams with decades of experience under their belt.
The Weinstein trial was the second-biggest court case of the #MeToo movement, after Bill Cosby’s 2018 sexual assault conviction. The fact that it ended with a conviction, when the US justice system has such an indelible record of systemic misogyny, is a statistical anomaly the importance of which cannot be overstated.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s go back to October 2017, when The New York Times and The New Yorker published their first explosive reports of Weinstein’s alleged reign of abuse. Think of the decades of silence that preceded those stories – of the seasoned journalists who tried to print those accounts but couldn’t safely do so. Think of everything that has happened since – of all the testimonies we’ve heard, of all the industries that are currently experiencing their own reckonings.
What started with Hollywood has spread to journalism, to the restaurant business, to the publishing industry, to the corporate world at large. That this trial happened at all is a sign that people feel increasingly able to speak out and challenge powerful abusers. We as a society are beginning to change, too – I want to believe that we’re doing a better job at listening to people who say they’ve been abused and at knowing how to support them. Conversations about harassment and assault are more frequent now than they were five years ago.
Obviously, we still have a long way to go. But the fact that the justice system is beginning to march to the tune of the victims’ drum is the result of a type of profound change that is only achieved through collective action and time.
Harvey Weinstein has been found guilty of sexual assault and third-degree rape. This is history.
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