Kevin Spacey’s acquittal on sexual assault charges will have ‘chilling effect’ on other victims coming forward, legal expert says 

Kevin Spacey stands at a podium.
US actor Kevin Spacey addresses the media gathered outside Southwark Crown Court after being found not guilty of sexual offences against four men in the UK between 2001 and 2013 following a four-week trial in London, United Kingdom. Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via AP

A London jury found Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey not guilty of nine counts of sexual assault this week. The moment the jury announced its verdict, Spacey, who has faced charges both in the U.K. and the U.S., breathed a sigh of relief and began to cry, according to the New York Times.

But Margo Lindauer, director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University’s School of Law, is unsurprised by the verdict. This is the latest courtroom victory for Spacey, but Lindauer is unconvinced that a not guilty verdict in this sexual assault case is absolution of guilt for the actor. It’s indicative of the often difficult legal territory sexual assault victims and their lawyers face, particularly when going up against famous faces with deep pockets, she says.

Head shot of Margo Lindauer.
Margo Lindauer, director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern’s School of Law. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“I don’t know what the standard is in the U.K., but in the United States it’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’” Lindauer says. “That is a very high burden. It is quite possible that in all of these cases, that burden was not met. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or people weren’t harmed.”

The month-long U.K. trial involved testimony from four men who accused Spacey of assaulting them between 2001 and 2013, during which time the actor served as director of London’s Old Vic Theater. 

Three of the men said Spacey had forcefully grabbed their crotches, including one who described an incident where Spacey did so during a drive with so much aggression that he almost drove off the road. Another complainant, an aspiring actor who hoped Spacey would be a mentor, alleged that he went to grab a drink at Spacey’s home in London only to fall asleep and wake up to find Spacey performing non-consensual oral sex on him.

Throughout his defense, Spacey and his team characterized his relationships and sexual encounters as consensual, claiming his alleged victims were lying to secure financial gain.

What does the verdict of such a high-profile case mean for other sexual assault cases? Will Spacey’s acquittal give sexual assault and abuse victims even more pause in coming forward? Northeastern Global News spoke with Lindauer about her thoughts on the case and its potential lasting impact.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

What was your immediate reaction to the news that Kevin Spacey has been acquitted of sexual assault charges in the U.K.?

My immediate reaction was that I was not surprised. I was not surprised that he was found not guilty. Now, that does not mean I don’t think he committed non-consensual sexual behavior. But finding someone guilty of sexual assault is a very high burden, and finding someone guilty of a sexual assault when there’s been a previous sexual relationship is not technically a higher burden but the rates of guilty findings are extremely low.​​ The rate of guilty findings on sexual assault cases are very low writ large, even for random acts of sexual violence.

There’s also this other element that can come into question the alleged victims’ credibility, which is this issue of ‘Were there previous consensual acts? Were they trying to fleece Kevin Spacey of money because he was a powerful, famous actor? Or was it a social climbing thing?’ Even if it wasn’t, that’s the narrative that Spacey and his lawyers have continued to reiterate, which can cause some doubt about the veracity of the stories.

The flip side is that we know that sexual predation and sexual abuse is a pattern. For people who engage in this behavior, it’s typically not an isolated incident. The pattern––this groping, going for or socializing with people who are not in the same community––is very consistent with that of a sexual predator.

I always say this with sexual assault: No one wants to come forward and report a sexual assault. No one wants to come forward and be a victim in one of these cases. The idea that that’s always the defense’s go-to––that people are doing it for their own self-interest––I find pretty lacking in actual substance.

But when you have a defendant or alleged perpetrator who does have a lot of power in society––and actors and celebrities in society hold a tremendous amount––there is that assumption that people are trying to get in proximity to them, however they are doing that, for proximity to that power. My position is that Kevin Spacey took advantage of that.

And he targeted people with no power. When you think of an imbalance of power, he is playing that to a T. And the consistency and pattern can lead a reasonable person to come to the conclusion that this is his M.O. He hires super fancy, super skilled attorneys. This trial in England took over a month. He’s spending tens of millions of dollars on his defense, and who can do that?

In the case of Kevin Spacey, all his alleged victims and accusers were men. Do you think that has played a role in how jurors and society at large have looked at and talked about this?

I think it absolutely plays a role because it comes in conflict with the social vision of what a victim looks like. You see this also in domestic violence situations where judges frequently have a really hard time identifying who the victim is in same-sex relationships, particularly in same-sex relationships with men.

What the data shows is that both domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, and sexual assault have the same rates in all forms of intimate relationships. But there’s this concept that men can’t be harmed in the same way or that there’s this parity of strength, that there’s no way a man could be raped or there’s no way a man could be coerced into a sexual encounter.

I also think there’s this idea of male sexuality that is very different from female sexuality, that men are always down to have sex. That this couldn’t happen. It’s very shortsighted, it’s not based on fact, it’s all just assumptions about gender, which are all socially constructed. But it all plays into how people view victimhood.

How does a case like this, a verdict like this, especially because he’s been acquitted in the U.S. as well, affect the larger conversation around sexual assault? Do high-profile cases like this make victims of sexual assault less likely to come forward?

I think there is a chilling effect when there are cases like this, when there are known abusers who are constantly not held accountable. I think there’s this concept that the criminal justice system is going to provide justice for survivors of sexual assault, and in many, if not most, cases, that doesn’t happen. We have not had a broader societal conversation about what justice looks like, if the criminal justice system can’t be the place.

Do I think it has a chilling effect? Yes. Do I think other things have had chilling effects? Yes. Do I think it sends a message that powerful white men can get away with stuff that marginalized Black and brown men can’t? Yes. I also think that it’s an opportunity to have a conversation about potentially alternative forms of justice.

I don’t think Kevin Spacey’s behavior in any regard is something I would hold up as correct. I don’t know, but it’s quite possible that this verdict is the right verdict. I don’t know what the standard is in the U.K., but in the United States it’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is a very high burden. It is quite possible that in all of these cases, that burden was not met. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or people weren’t harmed. There’s a conversation there at least about where people who’ve been impacted by sexual assault fit in.

I hope we continue to have a conversation, but I’m worried because he said––so, we don’t know if it’s true––something like, “Once I’m acquitted, I have all these deals lined up.” Not that anyone should be defined by the worst thing that they’ve done, but this behavior is clearly a pattern, he got away with it, he continues to get away with it. If he’s back to acting at the same rate, at the same price point, all of those things, that does send a message that this was just a nuisance or a speed bump. He could perceive that as a green light to continue behaving the way he is.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.