Jan 23, 2020
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Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Groping Trial Can Include Testimony From 2 More Women

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A judge on Wednesday ruled that two additional women who have accused Cuba Gooding Jr. of unwanted sexual touching will be allowed to testify in his groping trial, giving prosecutors the chance to argue that the actor has exhibited similar behavior for years.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office asked permission to admit as witnesses 19 women who came forward to accuse Mr. Gooding of groping or forcibly kissing them in encounters that date as far back as 2001. The alleged incidents — most of which are too old to prosecute — took place at bars, restaurants and nightclubs in seven states.

The judge, Curtis Farber of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, has agreed to admit two of them as witnesses: one woman who accused Mr. Gooding of grabbing her backside and licking her neck at a hotel bar in New York in 2013, and another woman who told prosecutors that the actor groped and forcibly kissed her at a bar in California in 2018.

Mr. Gooding, 52, has been charged with groping three women. Prosecutors have argued that admitting older allegations as evidence in the case will help prove that more recent stories of unwanted touching were not merely accidental or otherwise innocent gestures.

Rulings over whether prosecutors are allowed to admit additional sexual misconduct accusers as witnesses can prove to be critical in #MeToo-era cases. In Bill Cosby’s first sexual assault trial, a judge in Montgomery County, Pa., allowed only one witness to testify about an incident that had not resulted in charges, and that trial ended with a hung jury.

In Mr. Cosby’s second trial, the same judge permitted five women to testify about other incidents in which they said Mr. Cosby had drugged and violated them. The jury found Mr. Cosby guilty.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cosby asked Pennsylvania’s highest court to hear an appeal of that 2018 conviction. His lawyers argued that a panel of judges in a lower court had erred on a number of issues, including the decision to allow testimony from the five other accusers.

Testimony from women with accusations that have not resulted in criminal charges are also central to Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial, which started on Wednesday in the same court as Mr. Gooding’s proceedings.

Mr. Weinstein is charged with raping one woman in 2013 and forcing oral sex on a second woman in 2006. Four other women are expected to testify about their allegations that Mr. Weinstein sexually assaulted them — incidents that are too old to prosecute under the statute of limitations but could help establish what prosecutors assert is a pattern of predatory behavior.

In general, states place limits on admitting that kind of evidence based on the fear that jurors might convict someone because they have a bad character rather than based on evidence that they committed the crime in the indictment. In New York, judges are expected to weigh the “probative value” of the evidence versus the “prejudicial effect” on a jury when considering whether to admit such evidence.

Judge Farber wrote in his order that while admitting all 19 witnesses that prosecutors requested would result in “undue prejudice,” he said that the “probative value of admitting a limited selection of incidents outweighs any such prejudice.”

Mr. Gooding’s legal team argued specifically against the admission of witnesses whose accusations dated back more than a decade ago or could not be narrowed to a specific date or location, saying that those limitations made it difficult for the actor to fully defend himself.

The allegations that Judge Farber chose are more recent and are alleged to have occurred in specific locations that prosecutors provided to the court. In one of the alleged encounters that was admitted as evidence, a woman told prosecutors that she was at a work event at a bar in the Chatwal hotel in Midtown Manhattan around the date of Nov. 7, 2013, when Mr. Gooding grabbed her backside and licked her neck, according to court documents.

In the other encounter, a woman said that she was introduced to Mr. Gooding at a party at the Shore Bar in Santa Monica, Calif., around the date of Aug. 16, 2018. As they were talking, the woman said, Mr. Gooding grabbed her buttocks and her breast and forcibly kissed her, inserting his tongue into her mouth before she pushed Mr. Gooding away, according to court documents.

Groping allegations against Mr. Gooding first became public in June when a woman told the police that Mr. Gooding squeezed her breast at Magic Hour Rooftop Bar at the Moxy NYC Times Square hotel on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Since then, 21 women have come forward, resulting in two of the sets of charges — for accusations that Mr. Gooding pinched a female server’s buttocks at Tao Downtown nightclub in Chelsea and forcibly kissed another female server at Lavo, an Italian restaurant and nightclub on East 58th Street, in 2018.

So far, all of the accusers are anonymous in court filings. One of the women, Natasha Ashworth, made her name publicly known when she filed a lawsuit against Mr. Gooding.

Mr. Gooding has pleaded not guilty. Each case involves two misdemeanor charges, of forcible touching and third-degree sexual abuse. The maximum penalty for the top charge, forcible touching, is a year in jail. The judge scheduled his trial to begin on April 21.

Mr. Gooding’s lawyer, Mark J. Heller, has said that when a celebrity is charged with a criminal offense, people often “come out of the woodwork with allegations that are all over the place and, for the most part, aren’t provable.”

Mr. Heller said in a phone interview on Wednesday that he considered Judge Farber’s ruling to be a “tremendous victory” for Mr. Gooding because he only allowed two of the 19 potential witnesses.

Judge Farber opened the hearing by questioning Mr. Gooding’s legal team about why they were late, clearly irritated with their tardiness. Mr. Gooding, wearing a black suit and red scarf, said little.

Mr. Gooding’s legal team asked for each of the three alleged encounters to be tried separately in court, but Judge Farber denied the request. The district attorney’s office argued in court documents that the separate incidents were sufficiently related to try at the same time. Additionally, the incidents were alleged to have occurred in venues that are owned by the same parent company, Tao Group Hospitality, which means that security footage that may prove important to the case would come from the same source, prosecutors argued.

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