NEW YORK (AP) — Soon after Harvey Weinstein was convicted and led out of court in handcuffs, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. was in front of television cameras declaring that the verdict marked a “new landscape for survivors of sexual assault in America.”
Naming the six women who testified against Weinstein and the two prosecutors who tried the case, Vance said last week that they had “pulled our justice system into the 21st century by declaring that rape is rape and sexual assault is sexual assault no matter what.”
Weinstein, convicted of rape and sexual assault but acquitted on two counts of predatory sexual assault, faces up to 29 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on March 11.
Weinstein’s conviction in the landmark #MeToo case boosted Vance’s lagging legacy — a career-defining win a decade into a tenure that has been clouded by concerns that he repeatedly gave powerful people special treatment, such as sidestepping an effort to pursue charges against Weinstein in 2015.
The troubling history involving Vance includes: dropping rape charges against former International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 amid concerns about inconsistencies in the account of the hotel maid who accused him; a prosecutor taking the unusual step of seeking low-level sex offender status for Jeffrey Epstein, alarming the judge who said she had “never seen a prosecutor's office do anything like this"; and striking a deal in 2016 so a well-connected gynecologist accused of sexually abusing patients could avoid prison.
In a handful of interviews last week, Vance apologized to women who felt they hadn't been heard by his office. He said the #MeToo movement, spawned by scores of allegations against Weinstein in October 2017, has changed how prosecutors and society respond to sex crimes.
“I think we, like law enforcement and society everywhere, is understanding better the dynamics around sexual assaults," Vance told WNBC-TV. “I am changed only to the extent that I am more admiring than ever of the courage that it took for these women to testify against Harvey Weinstein, and to testify against a man with his power and prestige and vindictiveness took real courage.”
Vance, celebrated by the likes of “Law & Order: SVU” star Mariska Hargitay for devoting some of his office's hefty forfeiture slush fund to reduce a massive backlog of untested rape kit across the country, said he hoped the Weinstein verdict would compel more sexual assault victims to come forward.
“He’s definitely viewing this as a victory," Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer said of Vance. “But I’m viewing it as a victory for the victims over Harvey Weinstein and over a DA who has not been aggressive in the past.”
“I think a lot of New Yorkers were asking well, what took so long?” Greer added. “Why was it the court of public opinion that had to pressure you to do something?”
Vance, the 65-year-old son of the late former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance Sr., has not said if he will run for re-election next year.
In recent years, he's worked to strengthen his bona fides as a Democratic prosecutor willing to take on President Donald Trump and his associates. Those efforts include a looming Supreme Court fight over a subpoena for the president's tax and business records and a failed effort to prosecute former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort as a backstop to a potential pardon. A judge in December found that the case amounted to double jeopardy and threw it out.
For the first time, though, Vance has potential challengers lining up.
In an apparent shot at Vance, who has been in office since 2010, candidate Alvin Bragg wrote on his website: “For too long in Manhattan, we’ve had two standards of justice — one for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else."
As he was taking a front-row seat in the courtroom gallery to watch Weinstein's accusers testify, there were growing calls for Vance to resign immediately from other women who say he and his office have let them down.
Among them, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, who said Vance failed her in not bringing charges when she accused Weinstein of groping her at his Manhattan office in 2015, and Marissa Hoechstetter, one of dozens of women accusing Robert Hadden, the gynecologist who avoided prison time.
Gutierrez, a Filipina-Italian model went to police immediately and later recorded Weinstein admitting and apologizing for the encounter. Prosecutors have said there were concerns about the strength of the evidence in Gutierrez's case.
In their book “She Said,” the New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey who helped expose allegations against Weinstein, detailed how his legal team, led by Vance's former law partner Elkan Abramowitz, raised doubts about Gutierrez's credibility.
According to the book, the lawyers pointed out her testimony in an Italian court alleging former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had a sex party with teenage girls and a sexual assault allegation that she had made against a man in his seventies.
“We were looking at that case with 2015 eyes,” Vance told The Times last week. “We weren't looking at that case with 2019 eyes.”
Two months before Weinstein's arrest in May 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an investigation into Vance's handling of the 2015 case — though the probe was later suspended. Vance told the Times he is enlisting a nonprofit organization to provide an independent evaluation of how his office handles sex crimes cases and treats accusers.
Hoechstetter said Vance's office misled her about the statute of limitations in Hadden's case and was already negotiating a plea deal with the former Columbia University doctor when she was still talking to prosecutors about testifying at a potential trial.
Hoechstetter said she initially felt relief sitting in court watching Hadden plead guilty, but realized after reading the agreement that prosecutors agreed not to charge him with any other crimes they were aware of — including the ones she said he committed against her.
"I just realized how badly I have been treated and taken advantage of," Hoechstetter said.
Evelyn Yang, the wife of former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, disclosed in January that she had been assaulted by the same doctor. With renewed attention on the case and increasing pressure, Vance's office said last week it would reopen the investigation.
“It shouldn't take being a movie star to be heard,” Yang said. “And it shouldn't take your husband running for president to be heard.”
Follow Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak