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Saturday May 21st, 2022 7:59AM

Celebrity chef Mario Batali acquitted of sexual misconduct

By The Associated Press
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BOSTON (AP) — Mario Batali was found not guilty of indecent assault and battery on Tuesday, following a swift trial in which the celebrity chef waived his right to have a jury decide his fate in a criminal case that arose from the global #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment.

The 61-year-old former Food Network personality quickly strode out of the courtroom with his lawyers without commenting on the case, which centered on allegations that he aggressively kissed and groped a Boston woman while taking a selfie at a bar in 2017.

In delivering the verdict, Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton agreed with Batali’s lawyers that the accuser had credibility issues and that photos suggested the encounter was amicable.

“Pictures are worth a thousand words,” he said.

But the judge also rebuked Batali while suggesting the former star of shows like “Molto Mario” and “Iron Chef America” has already paid “a high cost” in terms of his diminished reputation and financial losses.

“It’s an understatement to say that Mr. Batali did not cover himself in glory on the night in question,” Stanton said after prosecutors argued he was visibly drunk in the photos. “His conduct, his appearance and his demeanor were not befitting of a public person of his stature at that time.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden said he was disappointed in the verdict but grateful Batali's accuser had come forward.

“It can be incredibly difficult for a victim to disclose a sexual assault,” he said in a statement. “When the individual who committed such an abhorrent act is in a position of power or celebrity, the decision to report an assault can become all the more challenging and intimidating.”

Batali, who pleaded not guilty to indecent assault and battery in 2019, took a calculated gamble that Stanton, a former Republican candidate for state representative appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, would rule more favorably than a Boston jury.

Seeking a non-jury, or bench trial, is often a strategy employed when a defendant can come across as unlikeable to jurors.

Such was the case for Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts teen infamously charged with manslaughter for urging her suicidal boyfriend to kill himself in text messages and who was the subject of “The Girl from Plainville,” a 2022 Hulu show starring Elle Fanning.

In Carter’s case, though, the strategy didn’t pan out and she was convicted and sentenced to more than a year in jail.

Batali faced up to 2 1/2 years in jail and would’ve been required to register as a sex offender if convicted.

His accuser, who also exited the courtroom without speaking with reporters, had testified how she felt confused and powerless to do anything to stop Batali at the time.

But in his closing statements, Batali’s lawyer Antony Fuller portrayed the 32-year-old Boston-area resident as an “admitted liar” who is financially motivated because she's filed a lawsuit seeking more than $50,000 in damages from Batali.

“In her world, truth is a flexible concept,” he said, referencing the woman’s recent admission of attempting to avoid jury service by claiming to be clairvoyant, which was a focus of the two-day trial.

Prosecutor Nina Bonelli countered in her closing statement that Batali’s lawyers were trying to “demonize” the woman, when it was their client on trial over his conduct.

She said the woman tried to “de-escalate” the unwanted touching by simply “smiling it off" in the photos.

“The kissing, the groping. She never asked for it. She never consented to it,” she said. “She just wanted a selfie.”

Batali was arguably the most prominent chef and restauranteur charged with sexual misconduct at the height of the #MeToo movement, which particularly roiled the food and beverage industry.

After four women accused him of inappropriate touching in 2017, he stepped down from day-to-day operations at his restaurant empire and left the since-discontinued ABC cooking show “The Chew.”

Batali also apologized, acknowledging the allegations “match up” with ways he has acted.

“I have made many mistakes,” he said in an email newsletter at the time. “My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.”

Last year, Batali, his business partner and their New York City restaurant company agreed to pay $600,000 to resolve a four-year investigation by the New York attorney general’s office into allegations that Batali and other staff sexually harassed employees.

In Boston, he had opened a branch of the popular Italian food marketplace Eataly and a Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca in the city’s Seaport District. But he has since been bought out of his stake in Eataly, and the Babbo restaurant in Boston has closed.

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