Detailed accusations that New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman abused women were enough to force him to resign — but are they enough to charge him with a crime?
Investigators say they are just beginning to look into the allegations made by four women who told The New Yorker that they were slapped, choked and verbally abused by Schneiderman, often during sexual intercourse. They all strongly rejected his explanation that any abuse was the result of consensual, intimate "role-playing."
One of the women told the magazine that Schneiderman hit her so hard her ear bled, and another said he left a mark on her face that was still visible the next day. At least one said she took a photo of the injury.
Dermot Shea, the chief of detectives for the NYPD, said investigators would interview the women in detail but he couldn't say yet whether any charges would result.
Legal experts say that based on the stories the most likely charge would be a lower-level assault. And since Schneiderman was accused of choking at least one woman, he could potentially be prosecuted under a law he helped pass in 2010, which made choking a misdemeanor. The statute of limitations is two years to bring charges for such crimes.
Strangulation or an assault that causes a serious physical injury has a five-year window to bring charges.
If investigators find evidence that he verbally abused someone, but did not cause visible physical injury, it would be considered harassment — a violation that has a statute of limitations of one year. That could come into play because some of the alleged abuse happened in 2016 and possibly earlier.
Another complication is that the women didn't go to the police at the time, which is common among victims of domestic violence.
"People think it's so simple to leave. But it's really very complicated," said Judy Harris Kluger, a former sex crimes prosecutor and current executive director of Sanctuary for Families, which aids domestic violence victims. "Let's start holding the men accountable and stop saying, 'Why don't the women walk away.'"
She noted that there's an added stigma of violence that occurs during sex. Women often feel as though they can't say anything in the moment and are embarrassed later by what happened.
Schneiderman's attorney Isabel Kirshner said Wednesday, "This is the beginning of a long road here," adding, "There's no case right now. We are doing our job, as we would for any client."
On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he was taking the case away from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. and appointing a special prosecutor, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas.
Cuomo's decision came about seven weeks after he asked the attorney general's office to look into how Vance handled a 2015 harassment investigation against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein that resulted in no criminal charges. Both moves were highly unusual — and some have accused Cuomo of meddling in the work of independent prosecutors for political gain.
On Tuesday, Cuomo said he appointed the special prosecutor because "I don't even want the whiff of the perception of conflict of interest or impropriety."
Vance strongly objected.
"Charging and jurisdictional decision making should be left to independent prosecutors who are answerable to their local constituents," Vance wrote. "Interference with law enforcement investigations by an elected chief executive should always be viewed with great care, especially these days, given the propensity of our elected executive at the federal level in Washington to make statements and take actions that jeopardize the independence of our criminal justice system."
Cuomo's attorney Alphonso David on Wednesday issued a letter in response to Vance's, saying, "As a law enforcement official, you know it is not your personal beliefs that determine a conflict; rather, that must be determined by an objective review of the totality of the circumstances, including the interests of victims and their representatives. It is paramount that not only women, but all New Yorkers, believe this matter is being handled fairly, and they have made it clear that you do not instill that confidence in them."
Schneiderman's resignation Monday night, just three hours after The New Yorker story appeared, was a stunningly swift fall for a politician who put himself at the forefront of the #MeToo movement and had cast himself as a defender of women. His accusers said the hypocrisy of his speaking out on such issues was part of what pushed them to come forward.
The 63-year-old Schneiderman, who is divorced and has a daughter, emerged from his Manhattan apartment building Wednesday for the first time since the scandal broke. Wearing a sportcoat and jeans, he rushed through a pack of news photographers to a waiting SUV, telling them: "Thank you. Have a nice day."