New York: A New York judge on Thursday threw out one of six sexual assault allegations against disgraced Hollywood tycoon Harvey Weinstein, a victory for a defense now clamoring for the entire case to be dismissed.
Weinstein, an international pariah after being accused by more than 80 women of sexual misconduct, is still charged with rape in March 2013 and a forced act of oral sex in 2006, which could see him spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.
The 66-year-old father of five was arrested in May, eight months after he was initially accused in the media of decades of sexual misconduct.
He is out on a $1 million bail and denies any non-consensual sex.
On Thursday he sat in a Manhattan criminal court in a dark suit to hear the prosecution agree to drop a forced act of oral sex lodged by Lucia Evans against him in 2004, due to witness inconsistencies.
A letter from prosecutors, subsequently unsealed by the judge, revealed credibility issues and seemed to suggest that Evans, an aspiring actress in 2004, may have performed oral sex on Weinstein of her own volition, in the hope of obtaining an acting part.
The document also referenced possible police misconduct, after a detective failed to turn over details from a witness interview, and a draft email from Evans to her husband that exposed further inconsistencies in her account.
While Weinstein is still fending off allegations related to two other women, Thursday's decision amounts to a serious setback for the prosecution, who have already been criticized for their track record on bringing Weinstein and other alleged sex offenders to justice.
"We are moving full steam ahead," prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said in court.
Defense lawyer Ben Brafman asked in August for the entire case to be thrown out, disclosing emails that showed his client and the alleged rape victim were in a "long-term, consensual, intimate relationship."
"When one of the principle allegations in this indictment is predicated on perjured testimony that's a very big, important development," he told reporters on Thursday.
"I think this grand jury is irreparably damaged. I think the case against Mr Weinstein is, in my view, not sustainable," Brafman added.
The lawyer said his client was "obviously relieved and to some degree pleased" by Thursday's development and accused the district attorney of prosecuting Weinstein under pressure from the press.
"When you are vilified in the media, as has Mr Weinstein, there is a rush to judgment which is offensive to the concept of fairness and due process," he told reporters.
The next hearing is scheduled for December 20.
Evans's lawyer Carrie Goldberg defended her client and other survivors of sexual assault, who have been galvanised by the #MeToo movement against harassment. Evans made her allegations against Weinstein in The New Yorker last October, helping to spur countless other women to come forward.
"Over 80 women have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual violence and if our justice system fails to hold him criminally accountable then something is wrong with our justice system," the lawyer told reporters.
"The case against Harvey Weinstein is far from over and we expect the district attorney to move forward with the other cases. Lucia will continue her fight in other venues."
She pitched the Weinstein case in the wider cultural watershed that has gripped the United States since Weinstein's career imploded last year in a blaze of accusations that triggered a major reckoning about harassment in the workplace, and gave rise to the #MeToo movement.
"There's a reason why powerful abusers are scared and lashing out right now," she said. "Victims are now becoming warriors and this is just the beginning."
Brafman, who helped former IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn escape criminal prosecution for alleged sexual assault in 2011, insisted there was no condemnation of a #MeToo movement helping women.
But "when a movement pushes the prosecutor to arrest people who have not committed a crime and then charges them with those crimes then it's a dangerous movement," he said.