Wealthy celebrities like Weinstein better-armed to face sex charges

Harvey Weinstein is arraigned on multiple counts of sexual assault at a courthouse in New York, on May 25, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (AFP) - In handcuffing powerful movie producer Harvey Weinstein on Friday (May 25), US authorities appeared to confirm that no one escapes the long arm of the law in the United States.

But the record shows that celebrity and wealth promises a better outcome for the accused, especially in sex cases.

That legal ambivalence was on view on Friday with the arrest of Weinstein in New York on rape and sex crime charges. After turning himself in, the multi-millionaire behind a slew of award-winning Hollywood films was quickly freed after posting a steep cash bail of US$1 million (S$1.34 million).

Wealth allows him to hire one of the country's toughest criminal defence lawyers, Benjamin Brafman.

The powerhouse attorney notably defended pop icon Michael Jackson and former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn against sex charges, as well as the rapper and producer Sean "P. Diddy" Combs against weapons violations and bribery charges. None of the three were convicted.

While justice may be catching up with Weinstein, it is also testament to his wealth, fame and power that it has taken this long - the complaints detail more than two decades of alleged sexual misconduct against women.

"I didn't believe this day would come," said actress Rose McGowan, who accused Weinstein of having raped her in 1997.

She said the producer was "privileged" to be arrested on Friday, at the beginning of the long Memorial Day holiday weekend when Americans are likely to take less notice of the news.

For the wealthy, it is easier to avoid a public trial. The US legal system leaves a lot of room for negotiation between the accused and their accusers.

Nine out of ten criminal cases are resolved in a plea deal between prosecutors and the accused, rather than by a jury decision.

Brafman said Weinstein intends to plead "not guilty", but also said he will continue pressing the New York prosecutor "to dissuade them from proceeding" with the investigation - a possibility rarely available to poorer defendants.

The odds, and history, favour Weinstein. The greatest example is the 1995 case of OJ Simpson, the celebrated football player who hired a top-notch legal team to fight murder charges and won.

Money and powerful lawyers also allow celebrities to avoid trials by buying off accusers, getting them to sign hush agreements to keep a possible scandal or lawsuit under wraps.

Such "confidentiality" agreements was the specialty of President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Money equally allows celebrities to file counter-suits, and to hire private detectives to dig into the pasts of their accusers in hopes of finding information to discredit them.

That was the approach of Tom Mesereau, one of Michael Jackson's lawyers who recently defended wealthy comedian Bill Cosby against multiple rape accusations.

Like Weinstein, the accusations against Cosby took decades to surface, in part because of the power of his celebrity and accusers' fear they would not be believed.

Mesereau's defence rested on attacking the accusers based on their past behaviour and statements, and their slowness to complain.

In that case the tactic failed. Cosby was found guilty on April 26 of drugging and molesting a woman at his Philadelphia mansion in January 2004.

Wealth and fame can also intimidate prosecutors, many who are elected and whose careers can be made or broken by big-name cases, especially those involving sexual assault.

Sometimes they are reluctant to go after a celebrity because it is an unpopular and risky move. If they fail to win such a case, their careers can stall.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, whose office brought the charges against Weinstein on Friday, was earlier criticised for having declined to indict the film mogul in 2015, when an Italian model accused him of sexual assault.

And in 2011 Vance took heavy flak from all sides for arresting the powerful Strauss-Kahn for alleged sexual assault on a hotel maid, and then later dropping the charges, saying he could not make a strong enough case.

Most Americans still believe in the principle of "equal justice under law," the motto engraved above the entrance to the Supreme Court in Washington.

This includes applying the same humbling police station treatment to suspects, regardless of their power and popularity: fingerprinting them, mug shots, and the "perp parade" - being handcuffed for all, including celebrity-chasing paparazzi, to see.

And for his accusers, seeing Harvey Weinstein arrested on Friday offered something of a comfort.

"I have a visceral need for him to have handcuffs on," McGowan said.

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