‘This Doesn’t Mean He’s Not Guilty’: An Interview With Rowena Chiu, a Survivor of Harvey Weinstein

Women protest against rape as they sing a song in front of the court while Harvey Weinstein attends a pretrial session on Jan. 10, 2020, in New York City. (Kena Betancur / Getty Images)

When Harvey Weinstein’s conviction was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals last month, the decision reverberated far and wide. For many survivors, the unraveling of the conviction proved, once again, the failed promise of criminal justice. This failure was felt most deeply by the more than 100 women who have accused Weinstein of assault and harassment. Among these women is Rowena Chiu, whose account helped expose Weinstein’s predations. 

Since first hearing Chiu’s story, I have admired her from afar. I am inspired by her courage in coming forward, her insights into power, and her continuing dedication to upending a culture that tolerates abuse. So it was a great honor to talk with Chiu about her reactions to Weinstein’s legal victory. We spoke about the prospect of testifying against him in court, the importance of legal accountability, and how the #MeToo movement can better center women of color and other vulnerable populations.  

In this moment of setback, I wondered whether Chiu would feel—understandably—defeated. Just the opposite is true. As Chiu told me, beautifully and powerfully, “There’s work to be done and we roll up our sleeves and we do it.”

Rowena Chiu at the premiere of She Said in London on Oct. 14, 2022. (Ian West / PA Images via Getty Images)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Deborah Tuerkeimer: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me; it is an honor. Because of all of the events in the news lately with Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, I’d like to start by backing up to the trial itself. What was it like to watch Weinstein be brought to trial in New York City and to see the trial unfold?

Rowena Chiu: I’m very honored to be talking to you too.

Last week’s news about the verdict overturned was particularly personal to me because I was on the list to be in a more linear witness in New York and to be a secondary witness in LA. … The judges had actually accepted my case in LA and said I should be given a time to take to take the stand. They had even gone so far as booked me a hotel room and a car in LA, and I was actually set to speak the following morning and then my testimony got canceled at the very last minute. … They were going to have five primary witnesses and five secondary witnesses, and they could not have secondary witnesses exceed the primary witnesses. So, when one primary witness wasn’t willing to testify, my testimony was taken off the docket.

So, I watched the verdict overturn with quite a lot of emotion and trepidation because I was so close to being a secondary witness in both cases. I’d given evidence to the New York DA on several occasions, at least two in-person interviews and a number of phone calls … long interviews that lasted hours at a time. 

I followed the case very personally and I very much felt all the women that took the stand. It was hard for me to be in New York. I remember trying to make plans to be in the courtroom, and I never managed that ironically because the media that encircled the trial was so great and we had spent so much time talking to the media that I never made it into the courtroom.

I think that raises a really interesting point about the relationship between law and media, especially in a case such as this, where the actual legal trial is the pentacle of the way Harvey Weinstein has been tried. His defense team used that as one of the pillars of their defense: that Harvey has been tried in the court of public opinion and that is invalidated what has happened in the court of law. But certainly that relationship between what happened in the court of law and the court of media, or if you will public opinion, bore a very interesting relationship even for me as one of his survivors.

During the trial, it very much felt that anyone of those women who were up on the stand could have been me. … My concern even back then in March 2020 was: Would he be able to overturn it?

Rowena Chiu

Chiu: I feel like I didn’t really answer your question about how it felt. During the trial, it very much felt that anyone of those women who were up on the stand could have been me. I mean, really a hair’s breath away it could have been me, and obviously that feeling was really horrific to be carrying around.

Like many survivors, during the weeks of the trial, we all struggled to eat and sleep, and we thought incessantly about what was happening in that New York courtroom.

I felt feelings of doom, as many women do in the U.S. at the moment given the current political scene. It’s hard not to have nightmares about the political future, the economic future and the future for women. During that time, it was as though I were on that stand myself. I felt it very viscerally, to an extent to which physical functioning was quite difficult. I felt like a huge weight the whole time the trial was on.

I will admit that I did not think the verdict would go in our direction. I was staggered on the day. Ironically, I was in LA about to attend a conference on sexual assault and trauma, and I was there with a group of Weinstein survivors, who runs Echo Training. And so, a large group of us, 15 to 20, had gathered in LA for this training and I was on the flight when the verdict came out. When I stepped off the plane and my phone exploded, I knew immediately the verdict was out, but I was pretty sure it did not go in our direction. I thought he’d be exonerated. I thought it’d be not guilty. And so, I was utterly staggered that there was a sentence at all and there was a verdict of guilty.

Of course, it was a huge relief. You probably see the photos in the media—enormous lineups of survivors jubilant and elated. Being both British and Chinese, I think my reaction was somewhat muted because I thought about the weight of how flawed the legal system is in this particular area and how little it stands up for women and how much I had gone through to even get to this place.

My concern even back then in March 2020 was: Would he be able to overturn it?

Tuerkeimer: Wow. Well, you were prescient and here we are, and it’s May 2024 and of course Harvey Weinstein’s conviction has been overturned by a New York appeals court. What was it like to hear that news?

Chiu: It is deeply frustrating. I’ve described it in the media as the combination of a gut punch, a slap in the face, and the tearing open of a wound, and I really do think it is all of those things. I tried to think about ways in which I could describe it as viscerally as possible because it really is a very visceral thing, to obviously the women who testified primarily, but to a huge group of us for whom those women stood. 

Because the legal system is so limited and flawed in this particular area due to jurisdictions, statute of limitations, cultures of the law and history of the law around sexual assault, it has meant that very, very few women can ever take the stand. Therefore, those women have to stand for the rest of us. They literally represent us. So to have their testimony invalidated in this way is particularly painful. 

I think it almost hurts more as a legal technicality. I keep trying to explain in the press but, no, this doesn’t exonerate Harvey. This doesn’t mean he’s not guilty. This doesn’t mean he didn’t commit these sexual assaults. This is literally a legal technicality; the judges on the newer court of appeal felt that the DA should not have called upon secondary witnesses and that’s a whole other conversation. I mean that’s a complex conversation. It’s a wholly other conversation, but it’s separate from the conversation around ‘was he guilty of these crimes?’ and the thought that he’d have to be retried now with the same set of survivors having to give their testimony again is incredibly painful.

I keep trying to explain in the press, but no this doesn’t exonerate Harvey. This doesn’t mean he’s not guilty. This doesn’t mean he didn’t commit these sexual assaults.

Rowena Chiu

Chiu: I think it contributes to the larger societal culture of not believing survivors—immediately the default position is ‘these women are lying. These women are after money. These are false accusations.’ Of course, all the internet trolls came out immediately and now it’s ‘the criers,’ ‘lock up the false accusers,’ because that is the way our society operates. 

People have missed the nuance—this is actually a legal technicality and does not reflect upon the perpetrator’s guilt. Now it’s just like, Harvey’s an innocent man. He’s a family man that we brought down. It’s really interesting that society has taken what has happened to a few women and extrapolated it across all women: ‘Therefore, all women must be lying about Harvey. Anyone who has ever accused Harvey must be lying.’

It goes back to this idea of credibility. I staggered that the credibility of one man, now a proven rapist, can hold up so well in society, and yet, the testimony of hundreds, now almost thousands, of women against Harvey doesn’t hold up at all. It’s truly staggering.

Tuerkeimer: Let’s talk more about that, the court’s decision. As you know, it was based on the admission of testimony from three so called other acts witnesses, women who weren’t the victims of the charged crimes but described abuse that couldn’t be charged either because it took place outside the statute of limitations or outside the jurisdiction of New York. How do you think about the power of multiple women telling their stories?

Chiu: This is really personal to me because I was on the list to be a witness. I was exactly one of these women whose story could not be tried because it took place in Italy in 1998 and therefore it was outside the geographical jurisdiction. My assault did not take place in the state of New York, and it was well outside the statute of limitations. And so, my testimony was offered to the judge as a witness. So, I obviously feel strongly about the use of the witnesses or secondary witnesses.

I have this to say, in the public domain today, more than 100 women have come forward with accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Given the percentage of women actually willing to speak out about sexual assault, it hovers somewhere between 1 and 5 percent. It’s likely that these 100 women only represent generously maybe 1,000 women, maybe 10,000 women that actually are survivors of Harvey Weinstein. So, those in the public already are a very small fraction. A very few handful are able to pass that camel through the eye-of-a-needle legal requirements that mean you can bring a case against Harvey in the state of New York.

So, I just think when you do the math, the idea that there are three primary witnesses, three secondary witnesses … there’s six women that can stand up for the 100 women that have spoken out, maybe the thousand women that are actual survivors of Harvey or maybe even the 10,000 women that are survivors of Harvey. We’re never going to know. Some women have been silenced by ideas that will never speak out. Some women are far too under shame and they will never speak out. Other women have literally committed suicide as a result of what has happened to them. They are unable to speak out.

We’re never going to know the extent to which the borders of his sea of wrongdoing.

Very, very few women can ever take the stand. Therefore, those women have to stand for the rest of us. They literally represent us.

Rowena Chiu

Chiu: I can’t believe that we’re sitting here just like, ‘Should there be three women that speak out about him or six?’ I just find that almost insulting. The number of women that actually get to take the stand is so limited. This is controversial.

I know for me personally, going back to 2020 and thinking back on my own interviews with the New York DA, do I think the New York DA did the right thing by allowing witnesses? Actually I do. Because I think that it’s really easy to say that of three primary witnesses that took the stand, they have an axe to grind, or they were former girlfriends of Harvey, or they were polite to him afterwards, or they took his calls, or they answered his emails. And indeed, all those things were said both about the women in New York and about the women in LA. 

It’s so easy to discredit the few women that took the stand. I think the New York DA, as the LA DA did, is trained to build a bigger picture, because there is such a bigger picture out there. Hundreds of women out there. So, to say that those three or those six or still the tiny handful stand for so many others I think is perfectly reasonable and beyond reasonable. Actually, almost desperately allowable. I still actually just find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that so few women must stand for the rest of us, but that is the way the legal system is constructed.

I think the difficulty about that is I was on Piers Morgan’s show of all places with Donna Rotunno, Harvey’s lawyer of the New York case, and my interview with Piers immediately preceded Donna coming on the show. In fact, she entered the Zoom before I actually had an opportunity to leave it, and I leapt upon that ‘leave meeting’ button like a cheetah or a gazelle. I couldn’t get out of that room fast enough.

Her argument is that the accusers show no respect for civil society and the rule of law and that we must uphold the rule of law. Well, I want to say as someone who went to law school—who was actually at law school at the time she was assaulted by Harvey Weinstein even—I have deep respect for the rule of law. Her argument is predicated on the belief that the legal system is just and fair to both men and women, to both perpetrators and victims and that is far from the case.

And so, this is a particularly important nuance, I believe that survivors everywhere believe in a civil society and a rule of law. They wouldn’t come to courts of law looking for remedy if they didn’t believe in the rule of law, but what we want is for the law to do a better job of equally representing the rights of women as it does for men.

Tuerkeimer: Can the legal system deliver justice to survivors?

Chiu: Not as it stands. I think that we achieve small victories—like let’s not forget that Harvey will continue to serve a 16-year sentence in LA. So, there is some justice in the fact that Harvey is not currently a free man and hopefully will not be for a while. That’s a modicum of justice but is it insulting to even call it justice.

How many lives has one person destroyed? Despite the fact that Zelda Perkins and I tried to use the legal system to fight him in ‘98, specifically for the purpose of preventing him from harming other women.

How many women did he then go on and harm in the ensuing 20 years before he was eventually caught?

We tried to use the legal system to prevent Harvey from committing wrongdoing way back in ‘98 and it was woefully inadequate for two young women who had no money and no power and no name. The legal system was not on our side.

I was going to make a comment on the use of the name Harvey. I think that to me it is a reminder that this is what he asked me to call him. … I use that word in media to remind him that we had a personal relationship—that of mentor and mentee, that of boss and assistant—and that he was wrong to use that personal leverage as a way to attempt to rape me. 

Rowena Chiu

Tuerkeimer: Do you hope to see Harvey, as you call him, retried in New York City and do you worry about the credibility of the women whose testimony will not have the added corroboration of additional victims?

Chiu: I was going to make a comment on the use of the name Harvey. I think that to me it is a reminder that this is what he asked me to call him. It is a reminder I once worked as his assistant and that we knew each other personally. It seems disingenuous decades later to start calling him Weinstein as though he were a fictional figure. I think the word ‘Harvey’ personalized it because his attack on me was indeed really personal. He used a number of personal details that he knew about my friends, my family, my likes, my dislikes, my life as leverage against me. And so, I use that word in media to remind him that we had a personal relationship—that of mentor and mentee, that of boss and assistant—and that he was wrong to use that personal leverage as a way to attempt to rape me. 

Tuerkeimer: Thank you for explaining that. I think it’s really powerful and I’m glad you use that word to describe him.

Chiu: As a former lawyer, I try to choose my words with great care, especially in the media.

I would argue vehemently for the use of secondary witnesses because we unfortunately live in a society where it does take many women to come forward before one can be believed.

Rowena Chiu

Tuerkeimer: If he’s retried and it’s only one woman, maybe two but maybe one, how is the jury going to judge their credibility?

Chiu: That’s such a difficult question, because you wonder is it worth retrying Harvey. Of course, I would want him to be retried because I worry about a stool that only has one leg.

Originally when they started the criminal trials, they talked about having a criminal trial in New York, LA and London and because of my associations with all three of those cities, I agreed to testify to the New York DA, the LA DA, and the special investigation team in London. I thought about it as a stool with three legs being more stable.

London so far has not yet attempted criminal proceedings against Harvey, but when the LA trial was being put together and I was in the middle of testifying for that, a lot of people said, why should we bother with LA? He’s already in jail. He’s going to be in jail for the rest of his life. He’s not a healthy guy. He’s going to die in jail. And I said no, I actually need as many nails in the coffin as possible. I don’t trust the New York system. More specifically the system. I just don’t trust one system on its own, especially because Bill Cosby walked free, and I think that the more sentences we can string together the better.

I know there was a lot of criticism for the LA trial for putting women through it when it wouldn’t amount to anything and now I say, well thank god for that. I mean without California, Harvey would literally be a free man right now and he’d be rehabilitating his reputation. Because from Rikers, he’s been reading scripts and trying to put films together, which is kind of horrific to think that he could be rehabilitated in that way.

So, I think that question of should he be retried in New York is actually very difficult. Of course I would prefer a retrial. I personally would prefer a retrial in New York because I would like that stool, as I talked about, to have as many legs as possible. If it turns out that only one primary witness is able to take the stand, it’s truly horrific for that person. I don’t have the privilege of saying should that person go up. Nobody would blame that one individual or even those two individuals or maybe even three individuals, as there originally were, for not wanting to put themselves through that again. It’s horrific.

We as a society should take a step back and take a good, long look at it and say, ‘how can it be if 100 women have spoken out against Harvey, we’re only really allowing three of them to take the stand, leaving them virtually defenseless in the face of a jury who may or may not believe them? Why would we put women through that? Why is it so constrictive that very few women are able to go up there even though many have spoken out?

And then, outside the courtroom, the reverse is true. By that I mean to say, inside the courtroom we’re expecting a huge case to hang on the testimony of one or two or three women and we expect that to be credible.

We know that in society immediately outside that courtroom, many women speak out against the same perpetrator. Even then, that body of women is not necessarily believed. Courtrooms are really a microcosm of what happens in society.

Let’s not forget a jury is made of up 12 ordinary men and women that are meant to represent the view of the common person in society. In English law, we call that the man on the omnibus, rather charmingly. If that is true, then we need to take into account the fact that women’s views for some reason are discredited. Therefore, I would argue vehemently for the use of secondary witnesses because we unfortunately live in a society where it does take many women to come forward before one can be believed.

Protesters in New York City on Jan. 10, 2020. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Tuerkeimer: I think that’s so insightful—the gap between what it takes to be believed outside the courtroom and then what our legal rules demand in the courtroom is enormous. I feel like we could talk for hours but I am wanting to ask you one last question and it’s a big one.

In October of 2019, you published an essay in The New York Times publicly coming forward with your allegations for the first time, exactly two years after Jodi Kanter and Megan Twohey broke the Weinstein story and you said this, “I don’t know what the path ahead looks like.” So, what are your reflections now, almost five years later, about that path?

Chiu: It’s fascinating hearing my own voice echoing back in a half a decade. I’d almost forgotten about using that sentence. Much like Jodi and Megan, when they published their original piece on Oct. 5, 2017, they didn’t know how it would land. There’s a scene in the movie saying, ‘Maybe we’ll publish it and nobody will read it.’ They had no idea that it would reignite the #MeToo movement, that it would result in them winning Pulitzer prizes, writing a book, making a movie. They had no idea what the path ahead of them held and at the time when I wrote that New York op-ed I felt similarly. I had no idea.

I went on the NBC Today Show with Jodi and Megan and Ashley Judd on Sept. 9, 2019, and now when I look back on it, I think it’s hilarious—I thought, ‘well this is literally a 15 minutes of fame’ because it literally is 15 minutes. This is 15 minutes of fame where I’m going to do this extremely scary thing. I’m going to go public, and then I’d agreed for my name to be in Jodi and Megan’s book and that’s it. There’s going to be a media cycle for a day or so and then I’m just going to go back to my life with my four kids in Palo Alto and life will go on. I had no idea that I would be really kicking off a whole path, a whole avenue, a whole broad avenue or boulevard of activism and advocacy.

I’m kind of staggered when I look back at the person who wrote that New York Times op-ed really trembling in trepidation at what might come. I didn’t know whether nobody would read it or whether long lost childhood friends would read it. I didn’t know how far it would go. It is true, actually, that people who are not heard from since 1998 have ended up reading it. 

I had no idea that I would be really kicking off a whole path, a whole avenue, a whole broad avenue or boulevard of activism and advocacy.

Rowena Chiu

Chiu: I mean that New York Times article has really gone a long way around the world. It has opened doors for me to speak about these issues in corporate workplaces, in schools, in universities, in churches, in synagogues—in anywhere that I call a center of power around the world. I’m grateful for the opportunity to start at these kind of conversations because I still feel that the work of #MeToo movement is really only just beginning in terms of shining a light on really how oppressed and suppressed women are in many different sectors.

I particularly often speak for women of color, women who are undocumented, women who work for an hourly wage, women who do not speak English and their fear of sexual assaults. Their experience of sexual assaults on an hourly, daily basis is something that’s beyond comprehension. You know, modern day slavery is still a thing here in the U.S. So, while recent justices exist there’s work to be done and we roll up our sleeves and we do it.

Tuerkeimer: Thank you so much for that work, for doing it despite I’m sure a personal toll that it exacts as well, and thank you also for taking the time to talk with me and sharing your story with the Ms. audience.

Chiu: Of course. I’m very honored to be here.

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Deborah Tuerkheimer is a professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and the author of Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers. She teaches and writes in the areas of criminal law, evidence and feminist legal theory.