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How the Harvey Weinstein verdict may impact sexual assault reporting

Andy445/iStock
Andy445/iStock

(NEW YORK) — After hearing from 35 witnesses over more than two weeks of testimony, the jury in Harvey Weinstein’s rape and sexual assault case delivered a verdict Monday.

Weinstein was found guilty of criminal sexual assault and of rape in the third degree. He was found not guilty of the more serious charges of predatory sexual assault and rape in the first degree.

That verdict will very likely have ripple effects touching everyone from survivors of rape and sexual assault and their allies to defense attorneys and the criminal justice system, experts say.

“The fact that the jury deliberated and reached a verdict in the case is unusual and from my perspective is a marker of progress,” Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University, told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “I think the verdict sends a powerful message about not only this new era we find ourselves in, but also a new era for sex crimes prosecution.”

Weinstein, once one of the biggest power players in Hollywood, became the public face of the #MeToo movement in 2018 after both The New York Times and The New Yorker published explosive accounts of his alleged misconduct. The reporting featured accusations from actresses including Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and more.

In the New York trial, Weinstein faced five felony counts of rape and sexual assault, based on the testimony of two accusers: former Project Runway production assistant Miriam ‘Mimi’ Haleyi — who claims the Hollywood producer sexually assaulted her in 2006 — and actress Jessica Mann who claimed Weinstein raped her in a Manhattan hotel suite in 2013. Mann is being named now because she has told the DA’s office that she does not object to being named publicly.

In addition to the two women behind those charges, four others, including actress Annabella Sciorra, testified in support of prosecutors’ efforts to demonstrate a pattern of sexual predation.

Weinstein, who will be sentenced next month, was convicted of committing a criminal sex act on Haleyi and of third-degree rape of Mann. His defense attorneys said Monday they plan to appeal the verdict.

Weinstein also faces a second trial in Los Angeles. He was charged there in January with one felony count each of forcible rape, forcible oral copulation, sexual penetration by use of force and sexual battery by restraint.

“This is the new landscape for survivors of sexual assault in America,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., said after the verdict. “This is a new day.”

Why the Weinstein case stands out

The Weinstein case had circumstances that are common in cases of sexual violence but have traditionally made cases harder to prosecute, experts say.

Both Mann and Haleyi acknowledged in their testimony that they later had consensual sex with Weinstein and continued to see him after the alleged assaults. The charges on behalf of the two women were also brought to trial several years after the alleged assaults took place.

“The allegations are typical of what happens in the world, but the [trial] is not typical of what happens in criminal court,” said Tuerkheimer, noting the most common incidents of sexual violence include no weapon, no physical injury and no prompt reporting of charges.

“With this kind of high-profile case that the world is watching, a conviction has meaning that will reverberate,” she said of the Weinstein decision. “Survivors and prosecutors will see that these kinds of cases can be brought and we should expect to see more of these kinds of cases that have traditionally not been handled well by the criminal justice system.”

Weinstein’s defense attorneys Donna Rotunno and Damon Cheronis highlighted in their statement after the verdict that Weinstein “was not convicted on the most serious charges” he faced and prepared the case for their appeal.

“There are issues in this trial that were extremely troubling, and they prejudiced Mr. Weinstein’s ability to have his case fairly judged,” they said in a statement. “These will be addressed to a higher court.”

Time’s Up, the organization started by Hollywood actresses in response to the #MeToo movement, described the Weinstein trial and verdict as marking “a new era of justice.”

“The jury’s verdict sends a powerful message to the world of just how much progress has been made since the Weinstein Silence Breakers ignited an unstoppable movement,” the organization said in a statement Monday, referring to the group of women who have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

In the U.S., just 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police and only about half of arrests made go to trial, according to RAINN, which describes itself as the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.

Perpetrators of sexual violence are also less likely to go to jail than other criminals, according to RAINN, which says out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free, a combination of assaults not being reported, cases not being brought to trial and the accused either not being convicted or not receiving jail time.

“There’s a feedback loop,” explained Tuerkheimer. “When the criminal justice system fails survivors, survivors see that and are less likely to come forward.”

“I think that’s why a guilty verdict in the case resonates widely,” she said, referring to the Weinstein case. “For survivors, for people who care about sexual assault prosecution this would be a signal that the criminal justice system can respond to the kinds of cases that historically it has not done well with.”

The Weinstein case’s impact on reporting

RAINN, which runs a national hotline, said it has seen a spike in interest around reporting incidents of sexual assault over the course of the Me Too movement, including the Weinstein trial.

From fall 2017 to today, the number of people helped by RAINN’s victim services program has increased from 15,000 a month to 25,000 a month, according to Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN.

“It’s been an overwhelming demand and that’s just the number of people we’ve been able to help,” he said, noting that calls to RAINN’s hotline also increase when a high-profile story like the Weinstein case is in the news.

Berkowitz said he believes the trend will continue with the two Weinstein guilty verdicts.

“One of the things many survivors struggle with is whether or not to report their assault to police,” he said. “In the best of circumstances it’s a long, difficult process to pursue prosecution and live through an investigation.”

“Reporting is a very personal decision so it’s not for us to tell people what to do, but we would like to create a society in which many more victims choose to report,” Berkowitz said.

Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), noted that the impact of the case on reporting incidents of sexual violence will have a lot to do with the public dialogue that emerges around the credibility of survivors.

“Most of the time the most significant thing in moving forward with a report are the sentiments [victims] hear from people in their inner most circle, people who are around them and in their community,” she said. “We are all, in our day-to-day dialogue on this topic, on Me Too and the seriousness of sexual assault and harassment, sending messages to survivors on whether or not they’re believed and would be supported if they come forward.”

The days and weeks after the verdict will be an important time for sexual violence survivors and their allies to make sure they have the support they need, according to Joan Cook, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University.

While some sexual assault victims and their allies may find relief in Weinstein’s conviction on two counts, for others it may trigger memories of their own case or their own incident, according to Cook, whose expertise is working with trauma survivors.

She urges people to unplug from the news as needed, to take it easy on themselves and to reach out to their support systems, which may include seeking professional help.

“I know that you want to be informed of what’s happening in the news but you need to dial down and plug into self-care, maintain your routine, sleep well, eat well, do all of those things,” said Cook. “It’s understandable to be grief stricken or upset or angry and allow those [feelings] to be but choose safe and healthy behaviors.”

Cook said that her research has shown sexual trauma “packs a wallop like no other trauma” and can affect everything from a person’s ability to trust, love, function on the job and have healthy sexual relationships. Considering that an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds, according to RAINN, the chance that you are a victim of sexual assault or know one is high.

“I hope people are compassionate to survivors,” said Cook, who explained that one of the biggest predictors to recovery is social support. “They need to be listened to, to be able to ask for help and receive that help.”

Ashley Judd, one of the “silence breakers” who accused Weinstein, took to Twitter after the verdict to publicly thank the women who testified in the trial, writing, “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.”

What happens next

The experts GMA spoke with stressed the two guilty counts for Weinstein are neither the beginning nor the end for improving the criminal justice process for victims of sexual violence.

“A guilty verdict is a symbol but only one measure of progress,” said Tuerkheimer. “For ordinary survivors and survivors who don’t have the strength in numbers that the accusers in this case had, the odds are still stacked against them.”

Weinstein was acquitted on the most serious charges he faced, two counts of predatory sexual assault. The counts, which carried possible sentences of 10 years to life in prison, were related to the testimony of Sciorra, who said Weinstein violently raped her at her apartment nearly 30 years ago.

“We have to be cautious about generalizing from the verdict and drawing the conclusion that all is well and good for survivors who are seeking justice,” said Tuerkheimer. “Improving the response that has for so long been lacking is a process that will take time.”

The NSVRC also pointed out in a statement that it still remains the case that “most rape cases rarely make it to trial.”

“The dynamics of this [Weinstein] case remind us that while the criminal justice system is an important avenue for some survivors to seek justice and healing, it cannot be, and is not, the only one,” the organization said. “Only after there was an outpouring of allegations in the public eye did prosecutors act to investigate the reports of Weinstein’s pervasive sexual abuse. This trial demonstrated the widespread challenges encountered by victims of sexual assault across the country. Still we also know most victims never make a formal report to law enforcement, and most rape cases rarely make it to trial.”

Organizations like NSVRC, Time’s Up and RAINN say they will continue to work to hold people accountable and change the way society responds to victims of sexual violence.

“A single case cannot define a movement,” NSVRC’s Palumbo said, referring to the #MeToo movement. “The barriers that we as a society are creating for survivors coming forward and people accused not being held accountable are what allow this problem to continue to thrive.”

If you or someone you know experienced sexual assault and is seeking resources, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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