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The Weinstein case shows limitations in the U.S. justice system | The Triangle

The Weinstein case shows limitations in the U.S. justice system

Photograph courtesy of David Shankbone at Wikimedia Commons

As Harvey Weinstein attempts to evade numerous accusations of non-consensual sexual relations, several prosecutors nationwide are building their cases against him. It has been confirmed that both the New York Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department are opening investigations into the actions of him and his company. His dismissal from his own company and the sheer number of accusers gives credence to the case against him. At any rate, it is more likely than not that his accusers are speaking truthfully.

At the same time, there are several factors working against the prosecution. Sexual offenses are notoriously difficult to convict because of the deeply personal and humiliating nature of it.  Victims often feel stigmatized and less likely to contact authorities. Some do contact the police, but they do so at a time when evidence that could have secured a conviction is long gone, or at a time where the statute of limitations would make it impossible or unlikely for a viable case to be built in time. It might be possible that there are other victims of Weinstein who could have key evidence to bring against him, but social stigmas and the fear of retaliation are preventing them from doing so.

In this regard, the Weinstein case shares an uncanny similarity to the Bill Cosby trial. There are numerous witnesses and accusers, but only a fraction of them are willing to speak out. Of that fraction, only some have a viable case where there is enough evidence for a formal charge and the statute of limitations has not yet expired. Even if those conditions are fulfilled, there is no guarantee that there is truly enough evidence for a conviction. In Cosby’s case, his wealth allowed him to hire some of the best defense lawyers in the nation, which makes a case against him even more complex. In June, the Cosby case ended in a mistrial as jurors tied in a six-six split on whether to declare him guilty of sexual assault or not. He will be retried at some point, but the amount of time that the trial took  and the uncertainty of a guilty verdict proves how difficult it is in reality to prosecute sexual assault.  

These cases prove that our criminal justice system has flaws. We cannot convict people based on mass accusations alone, even if those accusations are very likely to be true, because definitive and irrefutable proof is needed. This is an important safeguard to ensure that the innocent are not deprived of their freedoms, but because of this, it is also nearly impossible to handle certain crimes, such as decades old sexual assault incidents, without diluting the quality of our courts.

It is for this reason that I disagree with others who believe that sexual offenses can be solved through a more rigorous application of the law. The criminal justice system simply isn’t the right tool to tackle the problem. New laws can penalize employers and executives like Weinstein who threaten to retaliate against people who expose misconduct within a company; however, that still won’t solve the social stigma of being a victim of sexual assault, which is often the deciding factor that stops victims from reporting to the police. 

Instead, we need a cultural shift which sends out a signal that this type of behavior is not acceptable. Traditionally, this is done through activism and public campaigns to raise awareness and push certain issues into the mainstream cultural discourse. Although  this is a noble and worthwhile method in the long term, it is a lengthy and strenuous  process.

Enacting cultural change through protest and traditional activism is as difficult as ever, even in the age of social media where ideas propagate at the speed of light. Technology is a double-edged sword, and the social media that enables activists to spread their ideas also allows listeners to filter it out if they can’t be bothered to contemplate the issues, or these causes could simply be overlooked by those who are saturated with information and noise.  

I believe that immediate results can be enacted through the free market. Concerned consumers should boycott and protest companies with unethical practices, which would force businesses and their partners to change their behavior. Alternatively, civil law and the threat of civil litigation can put pressure on companies to reconsider their actions. This strategy may not be a replacement for traditional activism, but it can be a stepping stone that gets the wheel moving, and it has worked for a variety of issues, ranging from animal rights to fair labor practices.  

In fact, there are signs that this is in play right now: The Weinstein Company is reportedly in uncertain times and may declare bankruptcy or the intent to transfer control to a parent company, with estimates that the legal costs and settlements associated with Weinstein’s scandal are at least 20 million dollars. The director of “Paddington 2” is reportedly severing distribution ties with The Weinstein Company as well.

Money is the universal language of humans, and consumers are now more empowered than ever to make their voices heard by voting with their wallets.