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Harvey Weinstein's 2020 rape conviction overturned by N.Y. appeals court

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NEW YORK -

New York’s highest court on Thursday overturned Harvey Weinstein's 2020 rape conviction, reversing a landmark ruling of the #MeToo era in determining the trial judge improperly allowed women to testify about allegations against the ex-movie mogul that weren’t part of the case.

Weinstein, 72, will remain imprisoned because he was convicted in Los Angeles in 2022 of another rape. But the New York ruling reopens a painful chapter in America’s reckoning with sexual misconduct by powerful figures — an era that began in 2017 with a flood of allegations against Weinstein.

While Thursday's ruling was a blow to #MeToo advocates, they noted it was based on legal technicalities and not an exoneration of Weinstein's behaviour, saying the original trial irrevocably moved the cultural needle on attitudes about sexual assault.

The Manhattan district attorney's office said it intends to retry Weinstein, and his accusers could again be forced to retell their stories on the witness stand.

The state Court of Appeals overturned Weinstein's 23-year sentence in a 4-3 decision, finding that "the trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts." The court's majority called this "an abuse of judicial discretion."

In a stinging dissent, Judge Madeline Singas wrote that the Court of Appeals was continuing a "disturbing trend of overturning juries' guilty verdicts in cases involving sexual violence."

The reversal of Weinstein's conviction is the second major #MeToo setback in the last two years. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a Pennsylvania court decision to throw out Bill Cosby's sexual assault conviction.

Weinstein has been in a New York prison since his conviction for criminal sex acts, including forcibly performing oral sex on a TV and film production assistant in 2006, and rape in the third degree for an attack on an aspiring actress in 2013. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in the Los Angeles case.

Weinstein lawyer Arthur Aidala called the Court of Appeals ruling "a tremendous victory for every criminal defendant in the state of New York."

Attorney Douglas H. Wigdor, who has represented eight Harvey Weinstein accusers including two witnesses at the New York criminal trial, called the ruling "a major step back."

"Courts routinely admit evidence of other uncharged acts where they assist juries in understanding issues concerning the intent, modus operandi or scheme of the defendant. The jury was instructed on the relevance of this testimony and overturning the verdict is tragic in that it will require the victims to endure yet another trial," Wigdor said in a statement.

Debra Katz, the prominent civil rights and #MeToo attorney who represented several Weinstein accusers, said her clients are "feeling gutted" by the ruling, but that she believed -- and was telling them -- that their testimony had changed the world.

"People continue to come forward, people continue to support other victims who've reported sexual assault and violence, and I truly believe there's no going back from that," Katz said. She predicted Weinstein would be convicted again at a retrial, and said accusers feel great comfort knowing Weinstein will remain behind bars.

Weinstein's conviction in 2020 was heralded by activists and advocates as a milestone achievement, but dissected just as quickly by his lawyers and, later, the Court of Appeals when it heard arguments on the matter in February.

Allegations against Weinstein, the once powerful and feared studio boss behind such Oscar winners as "Pulp Fiction" and "Shakespeare in Love," ushered in the #MeToo movement.

Dozens of women came forward to accuse Weinstein, including famous actresses such as Ashley Judd and Uma Thurman. His New York trial drew intense publicity, with protesters chanting "rapist" outside the courthouse.

Weinstein, who is incarcerated at the Mohawk Correctional Facility, about 100 miles (160 kilometres) northwest of Albany, maintains his innocence. He contends any sexual activity was consensual.

Aidala argued before the appeals court in February that Burke swayed the trial by allowing three women to testify about allegations that weren't part of the case and by giving prosecutors permission to confront Weinstein, if he had testified, about his long history of brutish behaviour.

Aidala argued the extra testimony went beyond the normally allowable details about motive, opportunity, intent or a common scheme or plan, and essentially put Weinstein on trial for crimes he wasn't charged with.

Weinstein wanted to testify but opted not to because Burke's ruling would've meant answering questions about more than two-dozen alleged acts of misbehaviour dating back four decades, Aidala said. They included fighting with his movie producer brother, flipping over a table in anger and snapping at waiters, and yelling at his assistants.

A lawyer for the Manhattan district attorney's office, which prosecuted the case, argued that the judge`s rulings were proper and the extra evidence and testimony he allowed was important to provide jurors context about Weinstein's behaviour and the way he interacted with women.

Appellate Chief Steven Wu said Weinstein's acquittal on the most serious charges -- two counts of predatory sexual assault and a first-degree rape charge involving actor Annabella Sciorra's allegations of a mid-1990s rape -- showed jurors were paying attention and they were not confused or overwhelmed by the additional testimony.

The Associated Press does not generally identify people alleging sexual assault unless they consent to be named; Sciorra has spoken publicly about her allegations.

The Court of Appeals agreed last year to take Weinstein's case after an intermediate appeals court upheld his conviction. Prior to their ruling, judges on the lower appellate court had raised doubts about Burke's conduct during oral arguments. One observed that Burke had let prosecutors pile on with "incredibly prejudicial testimony" from additional witnesses.

Burke's term expired at the end of 2022. He was not reappointed and is no longer a judge.

In appealing, Weinstein's lawyers sought a new trial, but only for the criminal sexual act charge. They argued the rape charge could not be retried because it involves alleged conduct outside the statute of limitations.

Associated Press writer Dave Collins reported from Hartford, Connecticut. AP writers Jocelyn Noveck and Larry Neumeister in New York also contributed to this story. 

Resources for sexual assault survivors in Canada

If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual assault or trauma, the following resources are available to support people in crisis:

If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety, you should call 911.

A full list of sexual assault centres in Canada that offer information, advocacy and counselling can be found ​on the website for the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres

Helplines, legal services and locations that offer sexual assault kits in Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia can be found here

National Residential School Crisis Line: +1 866 925 4419

24-hour crisis line: 416 597 8808 

Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: +1 833 900 1010 

Trans Lifeline: +1 877 330 6366

Sexual misconduct support for current or former members of the Armed Forces: +1 844 750 1648

Read about your rights as a victim here. ​

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