BOSTON – Bill Cosby was released from prison after his conviction that he drugged and assaulted a woman was overturned. Quarterback Deshaun Watson landed a record $230 million contract despite an investigation into allegations he assaulted 22 women. Celebrity chef Mario Batali was acquitted this week on the second day of his trial on sexual assault charges 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 before the reckoning, which ignited a firestorm of allegations against powerful, seemingly untouchable men.
Cases like Batali’s reinforce that 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, DC-based advocacy group.
“The lack of a criminal conviction does not mean that abuse did not occur or that it was okay,” she said. “It will often be extremely difficult to prove sexual misconduct beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly given the gender stereotypes that cause many people to be particularly suspicious when women share their experiences of sexual assault.”
Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Ian Polumbaum, who had helped prosecute Batali, declined to comment specifically on the case on Wednesday, but said sexual assault cases are among the most difficult to prosecute.
“Sexual assault survivors are still trusted less than any other crime victim,” he said. “That’s the perception we’re always fighting. Part of that is public attitudes, part of that is the private nature of the crime in most cases.”
Accusing a person of wealth or stature only adds to the challenge as public attention has increased and the victim’s alleged motives come under closer scrutiny, Polumbaum said.
“We are not afraid to bring up the difficult cases when they are supported by evidence,” he added. “And we hope survivors don’t let that stop them from coming forward either.”
Batali’s case also underscores how crucial the accuser’s credibility is in a wrongdoing case, especially when there is little additional evidence or witnesses to support the claims, says Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor in California who is now a professor at Loyola Law School in is Los Angeles.
Former Food Network personality Batali, 61, was accused of aggressively kissing and groping a woman while she was taking a selfie at a bar in 2017. an old employee of a software company who accused him of misconduct.
But Batali’s lawyers addressed the woman’s pending civil lawsuit against Batali, seeking more than $50,000 in damages, and her recent admission that she tried to evade jury duty in another criminal trial by claiming clairvoyance and, in another incident, forged rental records just to pay 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 ruling will serve as a cautionary tale to abuse survivors that they are always kept at a higher level, especially in high-profile cases.
“In those cases, there’s a greater temptation to get off course, and by doing so, you undermine the credibility of your own case,” Levenson said. “All that fame leads the victims to do things like offer up, sell their story, demand money, or somehow make what happened sensationalist.”
But Stewart Ryan, a former assistant district attorney in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania who prosecuted Cosby, argued that a sex abuse survivor who is also seeking damages in a civil lawsuit should be viewed no differently than someone hit by a drunk driver who sued the accused they will be prosecuted.
He also stressed that the rate of false reports of sexual assault is “tiny” compared to the “far larger percentage of survivors” who report no assault at all.
“One reason, unfortunately, is the type of tactic used here to question a survivor’s motives with questions unrelated to whether or not a sexual assault actually took place,” Ryan said of Batali.
The Batali acquittal parallels another high-profile #MeToo case in Massachusetts that fell apart over problems with the prosecutor.
In 2019, prosecutors were forced to drop the indecent assault and battery charges against actor Kevin Spacey after his teenage accuser refused to testify that he was groped by the “House of Cards” star while he was… worked as a busboy in a bar in Nantucket.
Meanwhile, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. is poised to avoid jail time after pleading guilty last month to forcibly kissing a worker at a New York nightclub in 2018.
Even disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s #MeToo conviction in 2020 could be in doubt as a New York court is expected to rule on his appeal soon.
“Sometimes since the Weinstein trial and conviction, people think we’re in a different time,” said Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a Dallas-based attorney representing gymnasts employed by former US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and others victims were abused.
“People are definitely more aware and there’s more support for survivors,” she said. “But by no means do we see the level of accountability, especially for people who are super-rich, very powerful, and well-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 story.
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https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/05/11/mario-batali-acquittal-underscores-perils-of-metoo-cases/ Mario Batali’s acquittal highlights the dangers of #MeToo cases