Politics

Why Didn’t the Weinstein Jury Believe Annabella Sciorra?

Annabella Sciorra
Annabella Sciorra arrives in Manhattan Criminal Court on Jan. 23 in New York City Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

Annabella Sciorra testified against Harvey Weinstein in court partly because the case the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had built against the tyrannical Miramax honcho was, per the conventional legal calculus, weak. Before his trial and eventual conviction, the concern was that Weinstein’s main accusers, Jessica Mann and Mimi Haley, had done things that don’t fit common preconceptions about how victims of sexual assault should act. Both, for instance, kept communicating with Weinstein and agreed to have sex with him after being attacked. This isn’t especially unusual; rape experts have been trying for years to educate the public on how victims of sexual assault actually behave toward their attackers, and it isn’t always with outright rejection. (It shouldn’t be so hard a concept to internalize, given that marital rape has been recognized as a crime in every state in 1993, and given our better understanding of how abusive dynamics frequently turn victims into appeasers.) But the experts’ better understanding of how survivors behave hadn’t penetrated our justice system. Per the New York Times, “it is rare to prosecute such cases, according to police officials, defense lawyers and victim advocates across the country. The longstanding assumption is that jurors will find the accusers less than credible or the dynamics too complicated for a conviction.” This assumption has now been overturned; conviction aside, the decision to prosecute in the first place might be the greatest indicator yet that the tectonic plate-shifting of #MeToo will have some permanence. And the way the assumption has been overturned is surprising because it amounts to an inversion of the conventional wisdom. Annabella Sciorra’s account was of a straightforward, unambiguous rape, and yet it was not believed—or was not persuasive enough for the jury to convict on the more serious charge of predatory sexual assault—whereas the less-straightforward cases brought by his two accusers were.

Sciorra’s account fits more easily into the older and narrower understanding of rape and of how survivors behave in the aftermath. Sciorra claimed that Weinstein showed up at her door after dropping her off; she’d been getting ready for bed when he barged in, pinned her arms above her, and raped her. It’s a pretty “textbook” account, and so is the corroborating testimony of her resulting trauma. Rosie Perez testified that Sciorra told her, “I think I was raped,” back in 1993, shortly after the attack. Sciorra eventually revealed Weinstein’s identity to Perez. Sciorra’s friend Kara Young testified that Sciorra seemed different in the aftermath—fidgety and nervous—and had cuts on her upper thighs. She admitted she’d started cutting herself. Even the defense witnesses meant to impugn Sciorra’s credibility seemed to bolster her case: A producer, Paul Feldsher, testified that Sciorra, with whom he claimed to have been close friends, had told him she “did a crazy thing with Harvey,” which he’d interpreted as consensual “fooling around.” On cross-examination it emerged that he had never known Sciorra’s friends or visited her home and had in fact been in regular contact with Weinstein (to whom Feldsher called Sciorra “an asshole” and suggested that her “rape version” had gotten her an agent). The best Weinstein’s defense attorney Donna Rotunno could do was suggest that Sciorra, an actor, was acting: Rotunno played an old clip of Sciorra telling David Letterman she liked to make up little stories for the press.

Compared with Sciorra’s, Jessica Mann’s case seemed harder to prove: Not only did she continue to have a relationship with Weinstein, but her former friend and roommate Talita Maia (with whom Mann had a falling out) testified that Mann didn’t seem different after the two occasions upon which she was allegedly assaulted. Mann’s case was tougher to explain to a jury and harder to uphold under cross-examination. It’s entirely to her credit that she overcame some very powerful cultural narratives on the stand and answered why didn’t you just leave? to the jury’s satisfaction. The jury got to hear her try to articulate her conflicting feelings, her anger and competing desire for his approval even as she dealt with his repeated efforts to humiliate her. Making those dynamics legible to someone outside the relationship—let alone 12 strangers—is not easy. “It’s a credibility contest,” Aya Gruber, a former defense attorney, told BuzzFeed. “The loving post-event behavior becomes a question of, do you believe her?”

The jury did. So why didn’t they believe Sciorra?

Some have suggested that this is the wrong framing. Tarana Burke said as much in an interview with Democracy Now! after the verdict was read:

I don’t know that we can assume that they didn’t believe her as much as they couldn’t get to where they needed to get to convict him of that crime. And I think it’s really dangerous to put out this narrative that she wasn’t believed, right? Because she came and she testified about this really horrendous thing, and to make that assumption sends a message to survivors that we don’t need to send, that if you come forth that folks won’t believe you. The laws are very narrow.

But the reason the mixed verdict is being interpreted as a judgment on Sciorra’s testimony is that the charges were structured such that believing Sciorra, specifically, would escalate the charges. Of the five charges against Harvey Weinstein, he could only be convicted of two. In the end, the jury convicted him of the lesser crimes: of a criminal sexual act in the first degree for forcing oral sex on Haley, and of third-degree rape for his attack on Mann. Had they all accepted Annabella Sciorra’s testimony as an additional instance of rape, the jury would have convicted him of the graver charge. As the jury deliberated, it was Sciorra’s testimony (and her friend Perez’s) that the jury asked to have read back.

But as Burke indicates, jury deliberations aren’t just about belief. They’re about compromise, almost inevitably, and it’s more than possible that the gravity of Sciorra’s charge set the terms of the eventual agreement the jury reached. As in, the lesser charges were able to be settled on because Sciorra’s testimony (and a potential life sentence) set the bar so high to begin with. As attorney Debra Katz put it to the Hollywood Reporter after the verdict: “[Sciorra’s] testimony undoubtedly set the tone … no one who heard the power of Annabella’s testimony could come away with anything else. Juries engage in all sorts of horse-trading. We don’t know exactly what they did in the jury room. We will know more in the days to come.” We now know a little more: Juror No. 2 spoke to Inside Edition on Tuesday, and one senses, behind her careful phrasing, that some bargains were indeed struck. “We weren’t deadlocked,” she said, “we just didn’t want to have … some people change their mind.” It would not be at all unusual for some subset of the jury to feel the common impulse to deny a certain kind of man’s monstrosity—to give the benefit of the doubt even to the man who has become eponymous with the worst of the #MeToo stories.

I hope Sciorra doesn’t take this outcome as a rejection of her own case, but rather as a demonstration of how powerfully her story and that of so many others have helped reset our expectations. Sciorra seems extremely aware of the way women’s testimony is treated as fractional, with individual experiences stacking up as chips to be used in eventual negotiations. She told the New Yorker back in 2017 that she’d come forward both resenting and fearing the way Asia Argento and other women were treated—specifically, the way the severity of their experience was debated and downplayed. “O.K., you want rape?” she said. “Here’s fucking rape.” She did that again for Mann and Haley, whose experiences ran the risk of being similarly diminished. My colleague Christina Cauterucci observed on the day the verdict came down that even “ ‘fucking rape’ wasn’t rape enough.” This is true: Sciorra’s testimony didn’t result in a conviction on the escalated charge. But when she issued a statement after the verdict, calling her testimony “painful but necessary,” she repackaged the way survivor testimony is treated, so that it has a multiplier effect instead of a fractional one. “I spoke for myself and with the strength of the 80-plus victims of Harvey Weinstein in my heart,” she said.