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Mario Batali’s acquittal highlights the dangers of #MeToo cases

BOSTON (AP) — Bill Cosby was released from prison when his conviction for drugging and assaulting a woman was overturned. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has landed a record $230 million contract despite an investigation into allegations he assaulted 22 women. Celebrity chef Mario Batali was acquitted this week on just the second day of his sexual assault trial in Boston.

Nearly five years into the #MeToo era, former prosecutors, legal experts and victim advocates say prosecuting sexual misconduct cases hasn’t been any easier than it was before the ruling that unleashed a storm of accusations against powerful and seemingly untouchable men.

Cases like Batali’s, if nothing else, reinforce that the criminal justice system remains “a hugely flawed tool” to meet the needs of survivors, said Emily Martin, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, a advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. group.

“Failing to get a criminal conviction doesn’t mean there was no violence or that everything was fine,” she said. “It will often be extremely difficult to prove sexual misconduct beyond a reasonable doubt, especially given the gender stereotypes that lead many people to be particularly suspicious when women share their experiences of sexual assault.”

Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Ian Polumbaum, who helped prosecute Batali, declined to comment specifically on the case Wednesday, but said sexual assault cases are among the most difficult to prosecute.

“Victims of sexual assault are less trustworthy than almost all other victims of crime,” he said. “It’s the perception that we’re always fighting. This is partly due to the attitude of the public, partly due to the private nature of the crime in most cases. »

Accusing someone of wealth or stature only adds to the challenge due to heightened public scrutiny and increased scrutiny of the victim’s alleged motives, Polumbaum said.

“We are not afraid to bring the difficult cases if they are supported by evidence,” he added. “And we hope the survivors won’t be deterred either.”

Batali’s case also reinforces how crucial the credibility of the accuser is in a misconduct case, especially when there is little additional evidence or witnesses to back up the allegations, says Laurie Levenson, a former prosecutor federal state who is now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Former Food Network personality Batali, 61, was charged with aggressively kissing and groping a woman while taking a selfie at a bar in 2017. Boston prosecutors relied heavily on photos taken at the bar this that evening and on the testimony of the 32-year-old man. former employee of a software company who accused him of misconduct.

But Batali’s attorneys have looked into the woman’s ongoing civil lawsuit against Batali, which seeks more than $50,000 in damages, as well as her recent admission that she tried to evade her duties as juror in another criminal case claiming to be clairvoyant and, in another incident, forged lease documents just to avoid paying a $200 gym fee.

“These cases will never be easy,” Levenson said. “But even in the #MeToo era, you need credible victims.”

Levenson hopes Batali’s verdict will serve as a reminder to survivors of abuse that they will always be held to a higher standard, especially in high profile cases.

“There’s more temptation in these cases to go off the rails, and in doing so you undermine the credibility of your own case,” Levenson said. “The whole nature of fame leads victims to do things like offer to sell their story, make demands for money, or somehow sensationalise what happened.”

But Stewart Ryan, a former Montgomery County, Pennsylvania assistant district attorney who helped prosecute Cosby, argued that a sexual abuse survivor also seeking damages in a lawsuit Civil justice should be viewed no differently than someone who has been hit by a drunk driver pursuing the defendant while they face criminal charges.

He also pointed out that the rate of false reports of sexual assault is “tiny” compared to the “much higher percentage of survivors” who never report an assault.

“One of the reasons, unfortunately, is the type of tactic employed here, questioning a survivor’s motives with questions unrelated to whether or not a sexual assault actually took place,” Ryan said. about Batali’s defense strategy.

Batali’s acquittal parallels another high-profile #MeToo case in Massachusetts that collapsed over issues involving the accuser.

In 2019, prosecutors were forced to drop indecent assault and battery charges against actor Kevin Spacey after his teenage accuser refused to testify about being groped by the ‘House of Cards’ star while working as a busboy at a bar in Nantucket.

Meanwhile, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. is set to avoid jail time after pleading guilty last month to forcibly kissing a New York nightclub worker in 2018.

Even disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 #MeToo conviction could be in doubt, with a New York court set to rule on his appeal soon.

“Sometimes people think since Weinstein’s trial and sentencing that we’re in a different time,” said Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a Dallas-based attorney who has represented gymnasts abused by former US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. and other victims.

“People are definitely more aware and survivors are more supported,” she said. “But we don’t see the level of responsibility in any way, especially for very wealthy, very powerful, publicly known people.”

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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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