Respect Equality

The big problem with the Harvey Weinstein trial

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Story at a glance

  • Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in New York state prison after being found guilty of two counts of sex crimes.
  • Feminist scholar Leigh Gilmore is happy with the sentence and outcome, but calls Weinstein’s defense strategy into question.
  • “Cross-examination tactics as seen in this trial allow and even encourage re-traumatizing rape victims,” she explains.

Earlier this week, Hollywood producer and serial abuser Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison by a Manhattan judge after being found guilty of two sex crimes: criminal sexual assault and third degree rape. 

Weinstein’s downfall stemmed from a combination of investigative reporting by The New York Times and The New Yorker conducted nearly three years ago, as well as over 80 women publicly accusing him of sexual harassment. The #MeToo Movement also propelled his history of abuse into mainstream conversations. 

Survivors and victim advocacy organizations alike have praised the sentence as reflective of the severity of Weinstein’s crimes. Among these advocates is Leigh Gilmore, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, who specializes in “cultural practices of judgement and testimony.” Gilmore has written extensively about female testimony, having authored the books “Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing” and “Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives.”

Speaking with Changing America, Gilmore said that she was satisfied with the sentence, saying it “was at the high end of the range” in terms of the maximum sentence length, and speaks to a lasting impact on future sexual assault cases. 

I think it does put a particular kind of sexual abuser, in particular, on notice that his crimes may not only cost him his job, but his liberty,” she explained, and hopes that the verdict and sentence also encourage the District Attorney’s office and prosecutors to “trust juries to understand and believe survivors.” 

One element of the trial that was less of a groundbreaking moment for women’s and victim’s rights was the defense’s cross-examination of the plaintiff, Gilmore said. Multiple outlets covered actress Jessica Mann’s testimony that Weinstein sexually assaulted her multiple times during an abusive relationship. 

Per CNN, Mann faced “challenging questioning” from Weinstein’s attorneys, leading to her breaking into “heavy sobs.” Even after a brief recess Mann suffered a panic attack on the stand, leading the court to adjourn for the day. 

Gilmore stressed that “cross-examination tactics as seen in this trial allow and even encourage re-traumatizing rape victims. Defense attorneys use these tactics to exploit PTSD in survivors, to shame them, and make juries doubt them.”

This legal maneuver is largely intentional, Gilmore said, and can bring back painful memories for witnesses already in emotionally taxing situations, further exacerbating feelings of vulnerability and anxiety.   

“When attorneys deliberately ask questions that prevent witnesses from providing context, or scramble timelines, or otherwise rattle a witness into forgetting details, they are trying to amplify the doubt that already shadows women witnesses and exploit that doubt to induce sympathy for the accused,” Gilmore said.

Despite these setbacks, Gilmore thinks that it has shed light on the problems in the legal system and “how confusing, inadequate, and abusive the criminal justice is for victims of sexual violence.” To improve the system moving forward, Gilmore believes that changing the statute of limitations is critical to support a “fair and transparent processes for reporting that include clear steps for holding abusers accountable.”

 Weinstein’s New York trial is over, but he will have to face other sexual assault charges in Los Angeles. Weinstein’s defense team’s request for leniency citing his poor health was rejected by presiding Judge James Burke, and Gilmore anticipates a similar result in California courts. She says she expects Weinstein to be sentenced to additional time and that he will be found guilty on more counts. 

Weinstein faces up to 28 years in prison for the charges filed in California.

 “The women who testified against Weinstein were incredibly brave, as are all the silence breakers in the MeToo movement,” Gilmore said. “But for those who have not yet been heard in this one trial, or showcased while the media spotlight is on celebrity perpetrators, there must be processes for hearing the allegations of survivors that will enable them to be as safe as they are brave.”

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