Women’s human rights defenders are celebrating an overdue breakthrough in prosecuting sexual assault and harassment. Former film producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced in New York to 23 years in prison on Wednesday, March 11 for his two sexual assault convictions. He faces additional charges in Los Angeles. Many who work against sexual violence see a clear message to criminal justice professionals: Just try it!
The criminal laws are only as good as the professionals who enforce them. Human rights defenders around the world, including The Advocates for Human Rights, commonly report that criminal sexual assault laws are not implemented to hold offenders accountable. If police and prosecutors do not investigate, charge, and go to trial in sexual assault cases, then the existence of well-written laws have little effect in the community. Of course sexual assault perpetrators often victimize repeatedly with multiple victims. They are free to do so with impunity so long as justice professionals find reasons not to enforce the law.
But the Harvey Weinstein case serves to demonstrate what can happen when police and prosecutors do their best work to enforce sexual assault laws. Weinstein was convicted of both acts of sexual assault he was charged with committing. He was convicted of forcing oral sexual contact with Mimi Haleyi in 2006, and of raping then aspiring actress Jessica Mann, in 2013. He was acquitted of three other higher-penalty charges involving those same events, but the jury found him guilty of committing the 2006 and 2013 crimes. In short, the jury believed the two women Weinstein was charged with victimizing.
The prosecutors going into the Weinstein trial had no guarantee the jury would convict him. They had multiple challenges to overcome and no physical or biological evidence of sexual encounters. The prosecution was almost entirely based on the testimony of women describing acts that occurred years ago. Haleyi and Mann, and others who also testified about Weinstein’s sexual attacks, continued to communicate with and meet with Weinstein. They continued to be friendly to him and, in Mann’s case, even saying that she loved him. They did not report the crimes to the police at the time. Yet, with their testimony, along with other survivor testimony, the jury found proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt.
The Weinstein verdicts support the notion that community members -serving as jurors – are ready to hold sexual assault perpetrators accountable. It won’t happen every time; prosecutors must have sufficiently thick skin to weather a few not-guilty verdicts. But, when it comes to enforcing the sexual assault laws, if not now, when? If not today’s prosecutors, then who? The age-old excuse that “a jury will never convict him” is beginning to evaporate. So, the only way to move forward is for police and prosecutors to do their best work and just try it.
By Kaarin Long, Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights and former sex-crimes prosecutor