One survivor said she found the verdict both “hopeful and discouraging.”
Leah McGuirk, a journalism student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wasn’t surprised when she heard the verdict in Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trial. On Monday, the disgraced Hollywood producer was found guilty of criminal sexual act and rape; the jury, however, acquitted him on more serious charges of predatory sexual assault and first-degree rape. Weinstein now faces up to 29 years in prison.
“My first thought after hearing the verdict was: ‘That’s not enough.’” McGuirk told COURIER. “How can we, as a society, pat ourselves on the back and say that justice has been served to his victims? We can’t.”
Although more than 80 women have come forward since 2017 with their stories of being sexually harassed and assaulted by Weinstein, the case in New York focused on the complaints of two women: Miriam Haley testified that Weinstein had forced oral sex on her in 2006, and Jessica Mann said he raped her at a hotel in 2013. Four others also shared accounts of being attacked by Weinstein to establish a pattern of him targeting young, inexperienced actors.
The jury deliberated for 26 hours before coming back with a verdict. As it was read out loud, Weinstein appeared stunned, the New York Times reported, and told his attorneys three times, “But I’m innocent.” Weinstein will be sentenced March 11; his legal team said they plan to appeal his convictions.
What happened in Weinstein’s trial, McGuirk said, “illustrates how archaic our federal and state laws are surrounding sexual assault.”
McGuirk understands just how out-of-touch sexual assault laws can be. Last year, she helped secure the passage of legislation that closed gaping loopholes in North Carolina’s sexual assault laws. In 2018, McGuirk says she was at a bar in Charlotte when someone drugged her drink, causing her to black out. She later learned the state didn’t recognize her as a victim of a crime because she wasn’t assaulted during the ordeal.
That changed with Senate Bill 199, which was signed into law last year. Not only did the legislation prohibit tampering with a person’s drink, it also made it illegal to have sex with someone who is incapacitated. The legislation also closed another loophole: In 2019, North Carolina joined the rest of the country in giving people the legal right to revoke consent during sex.
According to a 2019 investigation by 11 North Carolina-based news organizations, less than one in four defendants charged with sexual assault in the state are convicted. Out of 100 counties from January 2014 through June 2018, the project found that 30 had no sexual assault convictions at all.
What happened in Weinstein’s trial “illustrates how archaic our federal and state laws are surrounding sexual assault.”
Crystal Emerick is the founder and executive director of Brave Step, a Concord-based sexual abuse survivor advocacy group. Emerick, who’s a survivor herself, said she found Monday’s news surrounding Weinstein both “hopeful and discouraging.”
“In one sense, it is a step forward that such a high-profile individual is being held accountable for some of his actions,” Emerick said. “While on the other hand and after countless brave women have come forward, he is being excused as a sexual predator, when he clearly is one.”
From an advocate’s perspective, she said, Weinstein’s case shows there is an incredible need to help educate people about sexual violence. “Not one person is immune to the far-reaching impact, yet as a society, it is easier to turn a blind eye while those we love are hurt and continue to hurt,” Emerick said.
Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, agreed. “People say, ‘Oh, this is a win for all sexual assault survivors. … [Yet] each time we have another case come before us, the court of public opinion still seems to be surprised that men of stature, men of power, commit sexual violence.”
Johnson-Hostler also said she always feels compelled to remind the public that even when this story fades away and the media move on, “survivors are harmed each and every day.” Their voices are still being silenced, she continued, and “the erasure of the horrific nature of sexual violence is what allows [that violence] to continue.”
Pointing to the data released last year on sexual assault conviction rates in North Carolina, Johnson-Hostler added: “We still have a ways to go in this country, and more importantly, we still have a ways to go in North Carolina.”