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Why Mario Batali was acquitted in his sexual misconduct trial

Disgraced celebrity chef Mario Batali was acquitted in a sexual misconduct trial this week. Here's what you need to know about the allegations against Batali and why he was found not guilty: 

What has Batali been accused of?

Mario Batali has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by numerous women. 

In December 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Eater published an exposé in which four women accused the celebrity chef of inappropriate touching. Multiple additional women subsequently came forward and accused Batali of misconduct, and the New York Police Department investigated sexual assault allegations against him. Several women also told Eater the chef groped them while they were posing for photos.  

The allegations effectively ended Batali's career, leading him to exit his restaurants, and ABC fired him from the talk show The Chew. In 2019, he and his business partner paid $600,000 to alleged victims of sexual harassment and discrimination at their restaurants. 

What was Batali charged with?

New York police closed their investigation into Batali without bringing charges in 2019. But later that year, he was charged with indecent assault and battery in Boston in connection with a woman who alleged he forcibly kissed and groped her at a bar while they were taking photos together. 

The alleged victim, Natali Tene, also filed a lawsuit against Batali. His trial on the criminal charges began in May 2022, and he faced the possibility of over two years in prison if convicted. He waived his right to a jury trial, allowing the judge to decide his fate. 

What was Batali's defense? 

Batali pleaded not guilty, and his attorneys denied the assault occurred. They alleged Tene's civil lawsuit seeking $50,000 proved she was financially motivated, citing her text messages with a friend, who told her she should "play up the story," to which she wrote back, "Of course." The defense additionally questioned why Tene returned to the bar where the assault allegedly occurred. 

Throughout the trial, Batali's attorneys also sought to undermine the accuser's credibility. They pointed to the fact that, in a prior case, she claimed she was "clairvoyant" in an alleged attempt to get out of jury duty and discussed that case with a friend against the court's orders. The defense even introduced an instance in which Tene allegedly falsified documents to avoid paying a gym cancellation fee. The prosecution dismissed all of this as a "distraction" from the fact that the alleged assault occurred. 

Did the accuser testify?

Yes. Tene took the stand to testify she was "shocked, surprised, alarmed" when Batali began "grabbing me in a way that I've never been touched before" while they were taking photos, "like squeezing in between my legs, squeezing my vagina to pull me closer to him." She also said she got "chills" when Batali asked her to come back to his hotel room. 

Tene denied coming forward for financial reasons. "This happened to me, and this is my life, and I want to be able to take control of what happened," she said. A friend of Tene's also took the stand and testified she told her about the alleged assault. 

What evidence was introduced? 

Photos that Tene and Batali took together were introduced as evidence, but Tene said they didn't clearly show him groping her because "his hands are not visible; the hands that are grabbing me are not in the photo." Time stamps showed some of the pictures were taken at 12:37 and some were taken three minutes later at 12:40. The defense said the pictures indicated there was enough space between them that Batali wouldn't be able to assault her, while the prosecution said it was "plain as day" in the pictures that he grabbed and kissed her face. 

What did the judge rule? 

Judge James Stanton found Batali not guilty, citing "significant credibility issues" with the accuser. 

Stanton called Tene's conduct in the prior case where she claimed to be clairvoyant "egregious" and said the gym membership incident was "indicative" of her "lack of credibility," supporting the assertion "that her motive was financial gain." The judge also pointed to the "visibility of the flooring" in the photos, which "indicated a separation" between them. Finally, Stanton found it "significant" that there was a three-minute gap during the photo session during which "it appears that ... plans were made to retake the selfies" though "allegedly a serious sexual assault was happening." 

Does this mean Batali has been exonerated? 

Though Batali was found not guilty, this trial only concerned one of the numerous misconduct allegations against him, and he still faces Tene's civil lawsuit. In acquitting Batali, the judge also said "it's an understatement to say that Mr. Batali did not cover himself in glory on the night in question," adding that his conduct was "not befitting of a public person of his stature." When the original Eater exposé of alleged sexual misconduct by Batali first emerged, the chef admitted that "much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted." 

What were the reactions to the verdict? 

ABC legal analyst Dan Abrams said the risky decision to opt for a non-jury trial "may have been the reason for the outcome," speculating, "I'll bet you that the defense knew a lot about this judge." 

Former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson told The Associated Press the case highlighted that "you need credible victims" in sexual misconduct cases, while National Women's Law Center Vice President Emily Martin told the AP it showed the criminal justice system is "an extremely imperfect tool" for sexual assault survivors.

In an essay at Eater, writer Amy McCarthy argued the verdict "starkly reveals the extent to which the court system has produced a lot of truly unsatisfying outcomes in adjudicating cases involving long-term patterns of sexually inappropriate behavior." McCarthy also suggested the verdict could "pave the way for a return that would allow Batali to profit from the reputation he built as a chef."

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