How #MeToo helped Harvey Weinstein dodge justice

His successful appeal against a rape conviction shows the folly of flouting due process.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan

Topics Feminism Politics USA

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A New York judge ruled on Wednesday that disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein will face a retrial this autumn. This decision came after the momentous news last week that a New York state appeals court had overturned his rape conviction from 2020.

The state appeals court, in a three-to-four decision, ruled that Weinstein had been denied a fair trial. During the original trial, the court heard evidence not just from the two complainants, an aspiring actress who alleged that Weinstein raped her in 2013 and a production assistant who alleged he sexually assaulted her in 2006; it also heard testimony from three more women not named in the criminal case. They were allowed to detail Weinstein’s unwanted sexual advances towards them as proof of the type of man he is. This shouldn’t have been allowed under New York’s so-called Molineux rule, which instructs courts not to admit evidence that only serves to undermine the character of a defendant.

Yet that rule was waived by the judge in the original trial. In the words of the appeals court, this led to extra testimony being ‘erroneously admitted’. The judge then compounded the error by allowing Weinstein to be cross-examined in a manner that showed him in a ‘highly prejudicial’ light.

The overturning of Weinstein’s conviction does not mean that he has been cleared of wrongdoing. He now faces a retrial for these alleged offences. Let’s also not forget that he was given a 16-year prison sentence in California, having been convicted of separate rape and other sex-crime offences in 2022 – although it has been reported that Weinstein plans to appeal against those convictions, too.

What this appeals-court ruling does hint at, however, is how justice was compromised by the zeal of the #MeToo movement. Indeed, the New York trial of Weinstein in early 2020 felt like #MeToo’s defining moment, the culmination of three years’ worth of campaigning. Finally, it seemed that the bad guy – the figure whose abusive behaviour towards women had turbocharged the #MeToo movement in the first place – was going to get his comeuppance.

It seems that this desire to punish Weinstein was allowed to trample over due process and legal precedent. Hence, the willingness of the judge to waive the Molineux rule, and admit extra testimony in order to ‘to demonstrate a pattern of predatory behaviour by Mr Weinstein’, as the New York Times had it at the time.

That this risked prejudicing the trial, undermining justice and opening up an avenue for Weinstein’s lawyers to appeal seemed a secondary consideration for far too many. Getting Weinstein, who by that point had become a symbol of the evils of all men, overrode all other concerns. That the conviction has now been overturned demonstrates the danger of abusing a legal process to punish an undoubtedly odious man. It damages and undermines the pursuit of justice.

In some ways, Weinstein’s case is a microcosm of the folly of the #MeToo movement. What began as allegations against one Hollywood sleaze turned into a social-media witch-hunt against innumerable men accused of all sorts of sexual wrongdoing. Women’s stories of men’s alleged misbehaviour – and worse – were excitedly posted, liked and shared across social media. In this climate, there could never be any smoke without fire. No allegations that were not to be treated as fact.

Among it all, there was undoubtedly plenty of truth being told. Yet there is no getting away from the fact that #MeToo had effectively turned into a moral panic about men in general and their supposedly predatory behaviour. And it did so at the cost of long-established legal precedent.

Some brave souls, including author Margaret Atwood, spoke out at the height of the #MeToo movement in favour of due process. Criticising the proliferation of zealous #MeToo denunciations, Atwood argued that ‘in order to have civil and human rights for women there have to be civil and human rights, period’. But few among the #MeToo crowd listened. Atwood was told she was suffering from internalised misogyny.

But Atwood was right to warn of the dangers of this moral panic. Post-#MeToo campaigns like #IBelieveHer and #BelieveAllWomen, which argue that women who accuse men of crimes should be beyond questioning, undermine justice for all. They ride roughshod over the principle of the presumption of innocence.

None of this is to say that there aren’t serious problems in our midst, that misogyny doesn’t exist or that there aren’t some nasty men out there. But in order to put men who commit crimes against women behind bars, we have to defend due process and the presumption of innocence. Without this, justice will not be done.

Ella Whelan is the author of The Case For Women’s Freedom, the latest in the Academy of Ideas’ radical pamphleteering series, Letters on Liberty.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Feminism Politics USA


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