As Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis continues to dominate national headlines, this week’s New York City crime and courts news has largely been led by the President’s many legal woes. More on that in The Allegedly List. For The Allegedly Original, Sean Piccoli looks at Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s handling of high-profile sex crime cases, exploring the complicated interplay of criticism and commendation—and his office’s influence on prosecutors elsewhere in the U.S.
The Allegedly List
The New York State Attorney General’s office questioned Eric Trump under oath Monday, following repeated delays. The deposition, which was carried out remotely, stemmed from the office’s civil investigation of whether the Trump family’s real estate business engaged in fraud. Via The New York Times
On Wednesday, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Manhattan prosecutors could enforce their subpoena of Trump’s tax returns. Trump’s legal team had unsuccessfully tried to thwart this subpoena, claiming unsuccessfully that the request constituted sketchy political maneuvering. Via The Washington Post
E. Jean Carroll, who alleged that Trump sexually assaulted her in a Manhattan department store dressing room during the 1990s, fired back against Justice Department efforts to rep the President in her defamation case against him. “Only in a world gone mad could it somehow be presidential, not personal, for Trump to slander a woman who he sexually assaulted,” Roberta Kaplan, who reps Carroll, said in court papers Monday. Via New York Daily News
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Laurence Love ruled Monday that cops can face criminal charges for violating the city’s chokehold ban as the law’s legal validity continues to be litigated in court. The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by 18 police unions in August, claiming New York City’s new chokehold law wasn’t clear enough. Via New York Post
Violence erupted in Borough Park this week as some members of the Ultra-Orthodox community protested new coronavirus regulations, with assaults taking place in front of NYPD officers. Longtime Jewish Insider journalist Jacob Kornbluh was assaulted Wednesday during the demonstrations. Via Gothamist
Rochester, New York Mayor Lovely Warren pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that she schemed to defraud election law, stemming from a lengthy inquiry into her 2017 re-election campaign. Warren was heavily criticized in September because the city had long stayed silent about Daniel Prude’s death at the hands of cops. Via New York Daily News
Baimadajie Angwang, the New York Police Department officer who allegedly spied for China, will remain in lockup pending trial, Brooklyn Federal Judge Eric Komitee decided Wednesday. An ethnic Tibetan, Angwang was recently accused of spying on other ethnic Tibetans in the city; prosecutors claimed that he also offered to give his handler at the Chinese consulate info about the NYPD’s inner workings. Via New York Post
NYPD officials said Thursday that anti-police sentiment, and the resulting low morale, is driving officers to retire in droves. While the NYPD remains the largest U.S. police force with 34,488 officers, that number is 7 percent less than last year. Via New York Daily News
The Allegedly Original
What Exactly is Cy Vance’s Legacy on Prosecuting Sex Crimes?
By Sean Piccoli
When federal prosecutors charged a former New York gynecologist last month with sexually abusing his patients, the U.S. Attorney bringing the case issued numerous thank-yous— to the Justice Department lawyers leading the effort, to their investigative partners at the FBI “for their dedication and professionalism,” and to the women who came forward with claims that the doctor, Robert Hadden, assaulted them in his office under the pretense of conducting exams.
“Without them, these charges could not have been brought,” Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Attorney Audrey Strauss said at a press conference, calling Hadden “a predator in a white coat” whose victims included underage girls—one of whom he had delivered. “We thank them for their courage and we are proud to stand here today on their behalf in bringing this case.”
A more muted thanks—“for their cooperation”—went to local prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In 2016, Hadden copped to a lesser charge in a plea deal that cost him his medical license but kept him out of prison—an agreement that infuriated some of his victims.
Strauss didn’t join the criticism of Hadden’s plea deal. But for, the more serious federal case against Hadden rekindled questions about Vance’s handling of high-profile sexual misconduct cases.
Elected in 2009 as a champion of women’s issues, Vance has also endured periodic criticism that influential white men with well-connected lawyers got deferential treatment in sex crime prosecutions and other cases. Some of these lawyers were Vance campaign donors until he stopped accepting their contributions.
It was Vance’s office that dropped a sexual assault case against French politician and financier Dominique Strauss-Kahn, tried to cut billionaire socialite and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein a legal break in New York, declined an opportunity to pursue a groping case against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, and let Hadden avoid jail.
Taken alone, each case came with complications and rationales for how the office proceeded. Prosecutors feared that Strauss-Kahn’s accuser was lying about key details. The initial Weinstein allegation, based at the time on a single complaint of abuse, was thought to be too weak to take to trial. The D.A. considered some Hadden accusers to be vulnerable to cross-examination. Meanwhile, a more aggressive Hadden prosecution might have been derailed by a mishandling of evidence, when Hadden’s lawyers discovered that the D.A. had neglected to turn over a nurse’s exculpatory statement disputing one accuser’s account.
Harder to understand, perhaps, was a Vance deputy going to bat for Epstein in 2011 and asking—unsuccessfully, before an incredulous judge— for Epstein to be given a lower and less punitive sex-offender status in New York after his conviction in Florida for soliciting an underage prostitute. (Epstein, later facing federal charges, committed suicide in a Manhattan jail cell.) Vance later said this happened due to a mistake by a subordinate, based on a misreading of the law.
Despite the criticism, victims’ advocates have praised Vance’s work as a blueprint for prosecuting hard-to-win cases—like Weinstein’s. After declining to pursue the 2015 allegation, Vance brought a case against Weinstein in 2018 that culminated this year in guilty verdicts for sexual assault and rape. A judge sentenced him to 23 years in prison.
“I have very high regard for Cy Vance doing what he did and taking the risks that he did,” lawyer Gloria Allred, who represented one of Weinstein’s victims in the New York case, told Allegedly.
Allred called it “a huge leap of faith” that most prosecutors would not have taken, when Vance and his lead prosecutors in the case, Joan Illuzzi and Meghan Hast, let jurors see a complicated picture of the relationships between Weinstein and his victims. “Juries are not used to being presented with that set of facts,” Allred said. “So it’s even more unpredictable as to what the result would be.”
“Based on my experience. I think his office did a really commendable job, an exceptional job,” Allred said, calling the case “a groundbreaking teaching moment for other prosecutors around the country.”
It appears that Vance might have provided a road map to Los Angeles County, California, District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Her office filed charges against Weinstein in January, April, and again last week for alleged sexual assaults in 2004-2005 at the Beverly Hills hotel.
The first woman ever to serve as Los Angeles’s chief prosecutor, Lacey assumed office in 2012, the same year a Justice Department study found that rape victims in Los Angeles struggled to get their claims heard and treated seriously by police and prosecutors.
“With her being the district attorney I suspect that things have changed,” Cassia Spohn, a study co-author and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, told Allegedly.
In 2017, in the wake of #MeToo gaining momentum, Lacey’s office established a task force to review old cases in the entertainment industry and bring new ones. After a slow start, the Entertainment Industry Sex Crimes Task Force has charged four people this year: Weinstein, film producuer David Guillod, porn actor Ron Jeremy, and “That ‘70s Show” actor Danny Masterson.
Allred, who is representing two women in the Los Angeles Weinstein case, said she anticipates that Lacey’s deputies will make every effort to match the work done by Vance’s office. “ I do feel they have been very careful, very sensitive and very diligent in preparing their case,” Allred said. (A spokesman for the L.A. County District Attorney’s office declined to comment for this article.)
It remains to be seen how much Vance’s high-profile sex crimes prosecutions will impact the race. Nine people have announced plans to run against him in 2021. Six are women, and Manhattan has never had a woman run the D.A.’s office in its 203-year history.
Whether or not political pressure and public censure play a role, Vance’s office in 2020 is making a public pitch for itself as an ally to women affected by sexual violence. Days before the Weinstein verdict, Vance reopened the Hadden case for further review. In May, the office released a report compiling results from one of his most lauded initiatives, the drive to test a backlog of more than 55,000 rape kits using funds seized from banks.
A Vance spokesman, Danny Frost, noted that as far back as 2018 the D.A. launched a task force focusing on sexual violence in the workplace—a unit sometimes referred to as the #MeToo Squad. Frost said the office has conducted a comprehensive internal review of its Sex Crimes Unit, assigned more prosecutors to work directly with police and victim advocates, retrained staff in how to deal with traumatized victims, and lobbied the state to toughen sex crimes statutes.
Frost also referred to a statement Vance made in September when assault survivors were calling on him to resign: “Our office fights day in and day out for survivors of sex crimes—helping them to obtain justice, vital services, and critical public policy changes—irrespective of the wealth, power, or race of their assailants.”
More, criticism of New York authorities’ handling of sex crimes cases isn’t limited to Vance and other prosecutors. In March 2018, the Department of Investigation slammed the New York Police Department’s special victims unit, saying there were dramatic staffing shortages. These shortfalls, DOI said, impacted the unit’s proper treatment of cases. The department also said that NYPD investigators didn’t do much for acquaintance rape cases compared to those involving strangers.
With the Weinstein case specifically, one of the six sexual-assault-related counts was dismissed in October 2018 after it was revealed the lead NYPD investigator didn’t disclose alleged discrepancies between one woman’s allegations and a witness. Prosecutors also revealed that this NYPD investigator had told an accuser that she could delete information from her phones before giving them to prosecutors.
One former Manhattan prosecutor told Allegedly that, if anything, Vance could be at risk of trying to do too much to compensate for law enforcement’s historical neglect of rape victims. If his office ramped up prosecution in a way that pursued weak cases for the sake of pursuing more sex crimes cases, it could undermine efforts overall. “I understand the outrage,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School. “But also having been a prosecutor myself, I understand why offices find these cases extremely hard to bring.”