BOSTON (AP) – Bill Cosby was released from prison when his sentence that he drugged and assaulted a woman was overturned. Quarterback Deshaun Watson landed a record $230 million contract, despite an investigation into allegations that he assaulted 22 women. Celebrity chef Mario Batali was acquitted this week on just the second day of his sexual assault trial in Boston.
Nearly five years into the #MeToo era, former prosecutors, legal experts and victim advocates say prosecuting sexual misconduct cases has proven no easier than it was before the reckoning that ignited a storm of accusations against powerful men and apparently untouchables.
Cases like Batali’s, at least, reinforce how the criminal justice system remains “a grossly imperfect tool” for addressing the needs of survivors, said Emily Martin, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington-based advocacy organization. Washington, DC. group.
“Just because you didn’t get a criminal conviction doesn’t mean the abuse didn’t happen or that it was okay,” he said. “It will often be extremely difficult to prove sexual misconduct beyond a reasonable doubt, especially given gender stereotypes that lead many people to be wary especially when women share their experiences of sexual assault.”
Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Ian Plumbaum, who helped prosecute Batali, declined to comment specifically on the case Wednesday, but said sexual assault cases are among the most difficult to prosecute.
“Sexual assault survivors are still less trusted than any other type of crime victim,” he said. “That is the perception that we are always struggling with. Part of it is public attitudes, part of it is the private nature of the crime in most cases.”
Accusing a person of wealth or stature only increases the challenge due to increased public attention and increased scrutiny of the victim’s purported motives, Polumbaum said.
“We are not afraid to present the difficult cases if they are supported by evidence,” he added. “And we hope survivors won’t be deterred from coming forward either.”
Batali’s case also reinforces how crucial accuser credibility is in a misconduct case, especially when there is little additional evidence or witnesses to support claims, says Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor in California who is now a professor at the College of Law. of Loyola in Los Angeles.
Former Food Network personality Batali, 61, was accused of aggressively kissing and groping a woman while taking a selfie at a bar in 2017. Boston prosecutors relied heavily on photos taken at the bar. that night and in the testimony of the now 32-year-old. former employee of the software company that accused him of the misconduct.
But Batali’s attorneys focused on the woman’s pending civil lawsuit against Batali, which is seeking more than $50,000 in damages, as well as her recent admission that she had tried to get out of jury duty in another criminal case by claiming to be clairvoyant. and, in a separate incident, forged lease documents just to avoid paying a $200 gym fee.
“These cases are never going to be easy,” Levenson said. “But even in the #MeToo era, you need credible victims.”
Levenson hopes the Batali verdict will serve as a cautionary reminder to abuse survivors that a higher standard will always be held of them, especially in high-profile cases.
“There is more of a temptation in these cases to veer off course and by doing so you undermine the credibility of your own case,” Levenson said. “The whole celebrity nature drives victims to do things like offer to sell their story, make demands for money, or in some way sensationalize what happened.”
But Stewart Ryan, a former assistant district attorney in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, who helped prosecute Cosby, argued that a sexual assault survivor also seeking damages in a civil lawsuit should not be viewed any differently than someone who was hit by a drunk driver suing the defendant while facing criminal charges.
He also emphasized that the rate of false reports of sexual assault is “minute” compared to the “much higher percentage of survivors” who never report an attack at all.
“Unfortunately, one of the reasons is the kind of tactics employed here, questioning a survivor’s motives with questions that have nothing to do with whether or not a sexual assault actually occurred,” Ryan said of Batali’s defense strategy.
Batali’s acquittal parallels another high-profile #MeToo case in Massachusetts that fell apart over issues related to the accuser.
In 2019, prosecutors were forced to drop indecent assault and battery charges against actor Kevin Spacey after his teenage accuser refused to testify. being groped by the “House of Cards” star while working as a busboy at a Nantucket bar.
Meanwhile, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. is about to avoid jail after pleading guilty last month to forcibly kissing a worker at a New York City nightclub in 2018.
He even disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in condemning #MeToo in 2020 could be in doubt, and a New York court is expected to rule on his appeal soon.
“Sometimes since Weinstein’s trial and conviction, people think we’re in a different time,” said Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a Dallas-based attorney who has represented gymnasts abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and other victims.
“People are definitely more aware and survivors are more supported,” she said. “But in no way are we looking at the level of responsibility, especially for people who are super rich, very powerful and who are known to the public.”
Associated Press reporters Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia, Michael Sisak in New York and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.