The verdict in the Harvey Weinstein trial will send a message to victims and prosecutors that difficult cases can be won, legal experts said on Monday.
Weinstein was convicted on Monday morning of committing a “criminal sexual act” and third-degree rape, following a six-week trial in New York Supreme Court. He faces five to 25 years in prison on the criminal sexual act charge, and another four years on the rape charge. He was acquitted of first-degree rape and two counts of predatory sexual assault.
To get the guilty verdicts, the prosecution had to explain why sexual assault victims would continue to meet with their perpetrator and send him affectionate emails, even years later. The D.A.’s office called a forensic psychologist who testified that rape victims often try to stay on good terms with their abuser to avoid harm to their reputations or careers.
“I think we’ll see prosecutors more willing to take complicated cases,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at Northwestern University. “I think that cases that in the past would never have made their way to a courtroom can be prosecuted and can result in a conviction.”
Bryan Sullivan, a partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae, said the case could well spur additional prosecutions.
“When you have one victory, it fuels the desire for more,” he said. “Look as far back as civil rights cases. No one was bringing those forward and after a few big ones, everyone jumped in.”
Weinstein was taken into custody after the verdict was read, and will be sentenced on March 11. Even though Weinstein has no prior record, several attorneys said they expected Justice James Burke to issue a fairly stiff sentence, given the number of accusers who came forward. It was also a bad sign for Weinstein that Burke ordered him jailed right away, denying a defense request that he remain free on bond.
“I would be very surprised if Judge Burke gave a sentence less than 10 (years),” said Jeffery Greco, a criminal defense attorney. “It’s probably in the 10-15 year range.”
The verdict was somewhat unexpected, because several trial-watchers found actress Annabella Sciorra to be the most credible witness. Unlike the two primary accusers — Jessica Mann and Miriam Haley — Sciorra did not maintain a friendly relationship with Weinstein after the alleged assault. But the jury’s verdict indicated that they believed Haley, and believed Mann enough to convict Weinstein of third-degree rape, while they did not believe Sciorra.
“The jury compromised, right down the middle,” said Bennett Gershman, a professor of law at Pace University. “We see this a lot… It’s giving half a loaf to one side and half a loaf to the other.”
Greco said the verdict did not make much sense to him.
“They did not believe Annabella Sciorra — she was the strongest one,” he said. “She is the only witness that did everything you would want a victim to do… The jury ran away with this. You couldn’t believe the two victims you said you believed and not believed her.”
Tuerkheimer said it is impossible to know what the jury was thinking without hearing directly from jurors.
“I think it’s really an enormous victory against long odds,” she said. “I think this is really a signal of what’s ahead in terms of a new way of thinking about sex crimes prosecution.”
Weinstein still faces four charges of rape and sexual assault in Los Angeles. If he were convicted on those charges, it’s uncertain whether the sentence would be added to his New York sentence, or set to run concurrently.
Matt Donnelly contributed to this story.