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Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance on Weinstein verdict and why his office didn’t prosecute in 2015

Cyrus Vance Jr. is the Manhattan district attorney who brought felony sex charges against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted on two counts Monday. But Weinstein was acquitted of the most serious charges, including predatory sexual assault. What does the result mean for future prosecution of sex crimes, and why wasn’t Weinstein charged earlier? Vance joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A day after Harvey Weinstein's conviction by a New York jury, there is a larger conversation happening about what it could mean for the legal pursuit of other sexual assault charges, and whether it changes how judges, juries and prosecutors approach these cases.

    Amna Nawaz spoke with two key figures in the trial about this case and the larger picture. And a warning: This segment includes sensitive subject matter.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, Weinstein was convicted on one count of rape and on a second count of committing a criminal sexual act.

    But he was acquitted on three other counts, including the most serious charge, predatory sexual assault.

    Cyrus Vance Jr. is the Manhattan district attorney who brought the case. And he joins us now from New York.

    District attorney Vance, thanks for being with us.

    We are talking about one of the most famous, most powerful men certainly in Hollywood, maybe the country. To the defense's point, do you think it is possible that Harvey Weinstein got a fair trial?

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    I do think Harvey Weinstein got a fair trial.

    The judge was very careful in extensive voir dire, or questioning of the jurors, to make sure that they explored whether there was bias or inability for jurors to provide an impartial review of the evidence, and the jury was selected as a result of their answers.

    And I have no indication that the jurors did anything but do their job, which was focus on the evidence or lack of evidence and come to a decision.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You spoke yesterday of the impact that you think this verdict could have. You said that, in this day and age, attorneys won't be able to question alleged victims in the same way in future cases.

    What did you mean by that?

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    In the examination of the survivors during the Weinstein trial, there was a lot of victim-blaming, a lot of harsh questioning of the survivors, which I don't think, number one, was particularly effective, I also think really was counterproductive to the defense.

    The survivors who were asked these questions, they obviously responded with honesty, often with emotion. It was a difficult and a grueling experience for them. And, at the end of the day, I don't believe that is necessarily the most effective way to cross-examine a survivor of sexual assault, as a defense attorney, having been a defense attorney for 20 years myself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should mention, you had a chance to prosecute Harvey Weinstein back in 2015, and you declined to do so. That was despite having an audio recording in which Weinstein admitted to groping model Ambra Gutierrez.

    Back then, it was part of an NYPD sting operation. You said at the time that there was insufficient evidence. So, what evidence did you have today in this case that you didn't have back then?

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    Well, what we had in this case were clear indications of and reports of sexual assault, including rape and oral unwanted sexual contact, which is the basis of the criminal sex act.

    So we had some very compelling evidence from six survivors, and a range of documentary and other witness — other witnesses to testify.

    So, I think the case — this case that we just tried with Mr. Weinstein was a difficult case, no doubt about it, and yet is a case that we had confidence in that, were we to take this to a jury, that the jurors would be able to see through the myths that were thrown up about victims of sexual assaults, and listen to the women and, as the jurors did, believe them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, DA Vance, back in 2015, you had an audio recording and you had witness testimony. Was it a mistake not to prosecute him back then?

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    No, I think the 2015 case was evaluated by the head of our Sex Crimes Bureau, who had 40 years sex crimes experience. She did a thorough investigation.

    The case was — had more information that was relevant to it beyond the recording itself, and her recommendation, revealing all the evidence, was that it was a case that we shouldn't bring. That was the basis of the decision.

    Secondly, I also think we're dealing with two different time periods, 2015 and now 2019. And what was known about Harvey Weinstein in 2015 is certainly not what is now known about Harvey Weinstein since 2017.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, I think there are a lot of people out there, women who have come forward with allegations in the past, who would disagree with that statement.

    They would say that Mr. Weinstein's alleged crimes were known for years and years. You said so this morning, that he was committing these crimes for decades.

    So, I guess the question is, if you think if something is different about this time period, what exactly is different?

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    The evidence that we had and built during the course of our investigation is different. The number of survivors who came forward is different.

    And I also think that the way the public in a jury receives this evidence at a trial is different. We have seen in the last several years in our sex crime prosecutions that there is, I think, a greater awareness by jurors and those who are evaluating evidence that victims of sexual assault, survivors don't always react in the same or predictable way.

    Some continue contact with the abuser. And we saw that in the Weinstein trial that just ended. So, I think there has both been a public shift in understanding and other significant differences between now and 2015.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That was five years ago. That was before really MeToo, the movement as we know it today, had really taken hold, before more than 80 women, we should mention, in that time period came forward with allegations against Mr. Weinstein.

    Do you think, today, it is easier in some way to prosecute these kinds of crimes?

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    Jurors listening to evidence are going to be better educated and more understanding of the ways in which survivors of sexual assault behave after an assault.

    Rape doesn't occur principally between strangers. Eighty-five percent of those who are sexually assaulted, in fact, are known to the abuser. There are many instances, as I said, where those who are the victims of sexual assault maintain contact with the abuser, in some instances because of work-related responsibilities.

    So, yes, I think it is a — I think the atmosphere and the landscape is more open to listening to survivors of sexual assault and believing them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I need to ask you, though, DA Vance, because those statistics have been around for years. We have all known them. That's always been the case about the way that people, especially survivors of sexual assault, react, that they usually know their attacker, that they usually tend to stay in contact with them.

    Do you think failing to prosecute those crimes earlier allowed for more crimes to be committed in the meanwhile?

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    Well, our office prosecutes about 600 sex crimes a year. So, over the course of 10 years, that's about 6,000 sex crimes that our office has prosecuted.

    So, I think that we are an aggressive office. We have very experienced sex crimes prosecutors. And we do the very best that we can on the evidence that we have. Most of the members of the sex crime unit are women who are career prosecutors who have committed their professional life to doing this work.

    So, in answer to your question, I think we do the very best that we can with some very professional and very good trial attorneys.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance joining us from New York today.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Cyrus Vance Jr.:

    Thank you.

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