Harvey Weinstein: Appeals court mulls overturning conviction

Allegations against Weinstein kickstarted the #MeToo movement, but some judges believe the prosecution tainted the case against him.

 Harvey Weinstein hearing in Los Angeles (photo credit: ETIENNE LAURENT/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Harvey Weinstein hearing in Los Angeles
(photo credit: ETIENNE LAURENT/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Jewish-American film producer and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein could see his conviction overturned, should a five-judge panel rule in his favor in his ongoing appeal.

The disgraced producer was convicted of rape and sexual assault charges in 2020 after allegations against him surfaced in 2017, despite these allegations going back decades. This conviction sparked the popular social media trend #MeToo, which raised awareness of sexual abuse and rape allegations against many powerful men.

Under his current sentence, Weinstein, 69, won't be eligible for parole until his late 80s. Further, he also faces more charges in Los Angeles, which could see him sentenced to 140 years behind bars.

But everything could change if a New York appeals court rules in his favor.

And despite the evidence against Weinstein, there is a chance this might happen.

Film producer Harvey Weinstein arrives at Criminal Court during his sexual assault trial in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., February 11, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/BRYAN R SMITH)Film producer Harvey Weinstein arrives at Criminal Court during his sexual assault trial in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., February 11, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/BRYAN R SMITH)

The five-judge panel heard arguments from Weinstein's attorney that pointed out several issues that allegedly tainted the outcome of his trial. These included having a woman writing a book on sexual harassment as part of the jury.

"She misled the court, she obfuscated, which is a nice way of saying she lied to the court, and she had an economic reason for wanting to get on this case," Weinstein's attorney Barry Kamins said during oral argument before the New York State Appellate Division, First Department, ABC News reported.

Another argument made was that the trial was not just of the allegations made against Weinstein, but of Weinstein's character as a whole. In other words, prejudicial evidence was let into the court that, as Weinstein's defense argued, created a negative image of his character that, in turn, impacted the trial's outcome.

The judge in the initial trial, Justice James Burke, had let three women testify and allege that Weinstein had sexually assaulted them, though he was not charged for these - a practice called Molineux evidence in New York that was meant to show a pattern of sexual harassment that would support the case against Weinstein - and had allowed a number of other incidents to be brought in as evidence in order to harm the defendant's credibility and rebut testimony - a practice known as Sandoval evidence.

The use of Molineux evidence was problematic for some of the judges because, as some of them felt, they were not used to show a pattern but a propensity. This is problematic since it could mean that a defendant convicted because of propensity was not convicted because the jury was sure they were guilty, but because the jury was sure that someone who acted in such a negative manner so many times in the past must therefore be guilty of what they were being accused of doing.

"You already have three women who give you three different types of stories of the horrors they experienced with him," one of the judges said, according to ABC News. "So to pile on with three uncharged complainants, three uncharged victims, is leaning really close to that propensity line."

Similar sentiments were expressed by some of the judges regarding the Sandoval evidence,

“You’re really arguing this was not overkill?” Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels asked Valerie Figueredo, the assistant district attorney representing the Manhattan D.A.’s office, Variety reported.

Manzanet-Daniels was one of the judges critical of the use of the Sandoval evidence, feeling it had gone too far and only served to paint a negative picture of Weinstein's personality.

“What did leaving his employee on the side of the road in a foreign country have anything to do with this sex crime case?” she asked, according to Variety. “Other than, ‘Let’s put in as much as we can to show that guy is a terrible guy.'”

“The jury was overwhelmed by such prejudicial, bad evidence,” Kamins said, according to USA Today. “This was a trial of Harvey Weinstein’s character. The people were making him out to be a bad person.”

Another judge, Justice Judith Gische, seemed to agree that the use of Sandoval evidence crossed a line, as around 28 incidents were included in it.

Figueredo replied that the number of incidents was, itself, justification.

“The fact that there were so many is only indicative of how the defendant lived his life,” she said, according to Variety. “The court was not required to unduly sanitize that.”

“You’re saying, ‘This is just him. He’s a bad guy. There’s a lot of acts because he’s just bad,’” Gische replied, according to Variety. “He doesn’t get convicted because he’s a bad guy. He gets convicted for these particular crimes. So that argument — I have to admit, it’s rubbing me the wrong way.”

Currently, three of the five judges on the panel have expressed their concern that the trial was indeed tainted by these factors. As such, it is possible that Weinstein, currently at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles awaiting trial, could have his conviction overturned.

The ruling itself is not expected until the spring of 2022, according to Deadline, but Weinstein's lawyers feel optimistic.

“I think it couldn’t have gone better,” said lead defense lawyer Donna Rotunno, who said that the line of questioning felt like “a wish list of how you want something like that to go,” according to Variety.

“We are very happy,” said her co-counsel, Damon Cheronis, according to Variety. “We are very hopeful, based on the appellate court’s questioning, that they see this case for what it is, that evidence that should have never been brought before this jury infected the trial and made it impossible for Mr. Weinstein to get a fair trial.”

This would not be the first recent high-profile sexual abuse and rape conviction overturned in recent months. 

In June, comedian and actor Bill Cosby, convicted of sexual offenses in 2018, was released from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the conviction due to a prosecutor's deal that he would not be charged for these crimes.

His conviction, like Weinstein's, was widely seen as a landmark moment in the #MeToo movement.

However, even if the conviction is overturned, Weinstein might not be so lucky in Los Angeles, where his trial is set to begin in the summer.

Reuters contributed to this report.