What Really Happened in 1990s Legal Battle Between Woody Allen, Mia Farrow
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Could Woody Allen Be Prosecuted for Alleged Sexual Assault of Dylan Farrow After All These Years? We Answer This and Other Legal Questions Raised by HBO’s ‘Allen v. Farrow’

HBO’s new four-part docuseries Allen v. Farrow paints a horrifying picture of Woody Allen as serial pedophile, grotesque abuser, and master manipulator.

The central subject is Allen’s alleged sexual assault of Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter with actress Mia Farrow. Specifically, that after years of carrying on an obsessive and inappropriate relationship with Dylan, Allen molested her when she was 7 years old. Dylan’s repeated descriptions of the event was videotaped in the few days following by Farrow, and retold by the now-adult Dylan in the series.

Allen has denied any wrongdoing for nearly three decades, and contends that Dylan entirely concocted a false abuse narrative after being coached by her mother to do so. According to Allen, Farrow was so enraged by Allen’s romantic relationship with Soon-Yi Previn (Farrow’s college-age adopted daughter who was raised as one of Dylan’s siblings) that she invented the molestation story as a scornful retaliation.

What really happened in the legal battle between Farrow and Allen?

Shortly after Farrow’s 1992 allegations that Allen sexually abused Dylan, Allen filed a lawsuit for custody in New York State. Allen and Farrow were not married, so the custody case proceeded as a stand-alone legal matter in civil court.

The court held a seven-week trial, during which it reviewed both direct evidence and expert reports submitted by the parties. Woody Allen testified that he believed Mia Farrow had “brainwashed” Dylan into fabricating the abuse story. In addition to evidence about Dylan’s abuse, Farrow introduced evidence that Allen had carried on a sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn from the time Previn had been a high-school teen.

Ultimately, Judge Elliot Wilk sided with Farrow, ruling that Allen’s behavior toward Dylan had been “grossly inappropriate and that measures must be taken to protect her.” He also ruled that Farrow was a “caring and loving mother,” and that, ″[i]ronically, Ms. Farrow’s principal shortcoming with respect to responsible parenting appears to have been her continued relationship with Mr. Allen.″

The court also awarded attorneys’ fees to Farrow.

Allen appealed Wilk’s ruling to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York. The appeal was heard by a five-judge panel of the court, which affirmed the trial court’s decision in full.

Writing for the majority of the appellate court, Justice David Ross issued a lengthy opinion that made it clear the court understood Allen’s argument, and simply disagreed with it. Ross wrote:

“[Mia Farrow] cites the fact that [Woody Allen] has commenced and maintained an intimate sexual relationship with her daughter Soon-Yi Previn, which he has refused to curtail, despite the obvious ill effects it has had on all of the children and the especially profound effect it has had on Moses.”

The judge continued:

“We find the fact that Mr. Allen took them at a time when he was formally assuming a legal responsibility for two of Ms. Previn’s siblings to be totally unacceptable. The distinction Mr. Allen makes between Ms. Farrow’s other children and Dylan, Satchel and Moses is lost on this Court.”

Though the court sided firmly against Woody Allen, it found Mia Farrow’s parenting less than perfect as well. Addressing Allen’s argument that Farrow purposely attempted to alienate the children from him, the court wrote:

“It is true that Ms. Farrow’s failure to conceal her feelings from the rest of the family and the acting out of her feelings of betrayal and anger toward Mr. Allen enhanced the effect of the situation on the rest of her family.”

However, the court was quick to follow up any criticism of Farrow with a reminder that Allen’s behavior was far less acceptable.

“We note though that the reasons for her behavior, however prolonged and extreme, are clearly visible in the record. On the other hand the record contains no acceptable explanation for Allen’s commencement of the sexual relationship with Ms. Previn at the time he was adopting Moses and Satchel, or for the continuation of that relationship at the time he was supposedly experiencing the joys of fatherhood.”

The appellate court found the allegation that Farrow fabricated Dylan’s sexual abuse allegations was made “without any basis.”

During the trial, much was made of a report issued by Yale-New Haven Hospital’s child sex abuse clinic. The evaluation detailed in the report spanned seven months, during which Dylan was subjected to nine interviews — a level of repetition experts have said is highly unusual in a case involving a child victim. Ultimately, the report concluded that Dylan had not been sexually abused, but that Mia Farrow had likely coached the child to fabricate the allegations. The reports findings were based on Dylan’s account having been contained multiple inconsistencies, as well as Dylan’s exhibiting “fantasy-like” thinking at times.

Allen v. Farrow raised several serious questions as to the validity of the Yale-New Haven report. Unlike the typical practice of preserving all session notes as evidence, the evaluation team destroyed all notes relating to Dylan’s examination. Further, the critical aspects of Dylan’s story remained constant throughout the nine sessions; the small details that differed actually supported Dylan’s credibility per expected outcomes in statements of child victims. Most shocking of all, however, was that filmmakers discovered that the child welfare investigator in New York had spoken directly to social workers who evaluated Dylan; that investigator had independent notes that “indicated that she believes Dylan,” and was actually “of the opinion that the child has more to disclose.”

In its ruling in Farrow’s favor, the appellate court specifically called out the Yale-New Haven report for its lack of persuasiveness.

“While the tendency of Dylan to withdraw into a fantasy and the inconsistencies in her account of the events of August 4, 1992, noted particularly by the Yale-New Haven team, must be taken into account in the evaluation of these serious allegations, the testimony given at trial by the individuals caring for the children that day, the videotape of Dylan made by Ms. Farrow the following day and the accounts of Dylan’s behavior toward Mr. Allen both before and after the alleged instance of abuse, suggest that the abuse did occur. “

The court stopped short of making a finding on the molestation itself. Rather, it called the evidence supporting the allegations “inconclusive,” but conceded that “it is clear that the investigation of the charges in and of itself could not have left Dylan unaffected.”

Looking toward the future, the court said about Dylan, “even if the abuse did not occur, it is evident that there are issues concerning Mr. Allen’s inappropriately intense relationship with this child that can be resolved only in a therapeutic setting.” The relationship between father and daughter was “at the very least,” “severely damaged,” wrote the court. “The consensus is that both Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow need to be involved in the recovery process. ”

The court’s order also addressed Allen’s parental rights with respect to the couple’s biological child Ronan, known then as Satchel.

Affirming the lower court’s order denying Allen unsupervised visitation with Satchel, the appellate court reasoned that while the lower court was not concerned for Satchel’s physical safety, it was concerned by Allen’s “demonstrated inability to understand the impact that his words and deeds have upon the emotional well being of the children.”

“The record supports the conclusion that Mr. Allen may, if unsupervised, influence Satchel inappropriately, and disregard the impact exposure to Mr. Allen’s relationship with Satchel’s sister, Ms. Previn, would have on the child,” wrote the judge.

The court continued, using Allen’s own words against him:

“His failure to understand the effect of such exposure upon Satchel as well as upon his other children is evidenced by his statement on direct examination in which he stated: ‘If you ask me personally, I would say the children, the children adore Soon Yi, they adore me, they would be delighted, if you asked me this personally, I would say they would be delighted and have fun with us, being taken places with us. But, I don’t want to give you my amateur opinion on that. That’s how I feel. And I know it counts for very little.'”

The appellate court agreed that all the subject children would be harmed by seeing Allen and Previn together without other supervision. Further, it ruled that, “it would not be in Moses’ best interests to be compelled to see Mr. Allen, if he does not wish to.”

“Therefore,” the court concluded, “we hold that in view of the totality of the circumstances, the best interests of these children would be served by remaining together in the custody of Ms. Farrow, with the parties abiding by the visitation schedule established by the trial court.” The court’s order meant Farrow became the sole decision-maker for the children, and that Dylan would not spend time with Allen unless and until she chose to do so.

The court also upheld the trial court’s order awarding attorneys fees to Farrow, questioning Allen’s sincerity in the litigation. “It became apparent, during oral argument,” noted the court, “that there was serious doubt that Mr. Allen truly desired custody.”

Justice John Carro issued a partial dissent in which he disagreed with the court’s ruling with respect to Ronan (again, then called Satchel), finding the court’s ruling “unduly restrictive.”

“There is strong evidence in the record from neutral observers that Mr. Allen and Satchel basically have a warm and loving father-son relationship,” wrote Judge Carro, “but that their relationship is in jeopardy, in large measure because Mr. Allen is being estranged and alienated from his son by the current custody and visitation arrangement.”

Carro detailed several examples of Satchel having been pushed by various adults to resist affection for or time spent with Allen.  “In contrast,” wrote Carro, “Mr. Allen has been reported to say only positive things to Satchel about Ms. Farrow, and conveys only loving regards to Moses and Dylan through Satchel.”

Because Carro was unconvinced that sufficient evidence was introduced to prove Allen would be harmful to Satchel, he concluded that six weekly hours of supervised visitation was unreasonably low. he would have modified the judgment to allow for more than triple that time in unsupervised visitation.

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, declined to hear the case, leaving the ruling in favor of Farrow in place.

The custody case initiated by Woody Allen was just one legal action of several that could have (and many argue, should have) occurred as a result of the accusations of sexual abuse against Allen. Given the seriousness of the allegations, Allen’s sexual history with Soon-Yi, and the damning video evidence against Allen, other cases might have been Connecticut v. Allen, NYC v. Allen — or at least Farrow v. Allen.

The prolific filmmaker, however, assumed the role of legal aggressor, filing as a plaintiff instead of waiting for Farrow to assert any legal action against him. He was neither criminally prosecuted, nor civilly pursued as the subject of child protective proceedings. Although Dylan’s allegations were reported promptly to the police, the case only escalated into legal proceedings when Allen filed for custody against Farrow.

Although the HBO documentary details the investigation conducted by New York City’s Child Welfare Administration (CWA) and Paul Williams, conspicuously absent is any child neglect or abuse proceeding. CWA never pursued a case that would have deprived Allen of any parental rights.

CWA conducted an investigation into Dylan’s allegations with Williams as main investigator. Williams reportedly concluded that he had sufficient information to open a criminal investigation against Allen, but never pursued the matter further because the case was stifled by his agency superiors.

Williams did not give an interview in the documentary, but both CWA supervisor Sheryl Harden, and Williams’ attorney Bruce Baron did. Baron described the case as a “massive coverup attempt” involving the administration of then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Following his handling of the Farrow case, Williams was fired from his job at CWA; he subsequently sued, won, and regained his position. Williams continues to work for New York City’s child welfare agency (now called New York City’s Administration For Children’s Services) today.

Despite the compelling video footage of Dylan’s account, and testimony of impartial observers about Allen’s ongoing inappropriate relationship with his children, CWA never filed a child-protective proceeding against either parent.

Because the alleged sexual assault occurred at Farrow’s country house in Connecticut, any criminal case would have been prosecuted by local authorities there. Connecticut, however, never filed any criminal charges in the case.

Allen v. Farrow featured Frank S. Maco, Litchfield County, Connecticut’s state’s attorney, who investigated the sexual assault allegations. Maco explained in the series that he strongly believed there had been probable cause to bring charges against Allen, but that he chose not to do so in an effort to protect Dylan from further traumatization. Maco retired in 2003 after 31 years as a prosecutor. Woody Allen made an official complaint against Maco to the Statewide Grievance Committee after Maco spoke with media about the case. The complaint was unanimously dismissed after a four-year investigation.

The Allen v. Farrow series finale showed a 2020 meeting between Frank Maco and Dylan Farrow (now 35), in which Maco said that of all the sexual assault and homicide cases he has prosecuted, the one that sticks most with him is this one — the one he never pursued. Dylan expressed understanding that Maco had been attempting to protect her fragile, younger self, but also said she wished she had been strong enough to testify and hold Allen accountable in criminal court.

Under Connecticut law, there is currently no statute of limitations for most sex crimes perpetrated against children. However, that law was amended after the alleged abuse of Dylan Farrow in the attic of the the family’s country home.

While, Woody Allen could theoretically be prosecuted in a different jurisdiction for an alleged sexual assault that took place in 1992, the potential assault of Dylan in Connecticut would likely be time-barred by the statute of limitations that would apply to the case . Of course, any prosecution occurring so long delayed — and particularly one for which a past prosecutor declined to bring charges — raises questions would make conviction a difficult endeavor even without a time bar. However, Allen v. Farrow made a compelling case for the significance of changing attitudes toward sexual assault. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement have irrevocably altered the public’s attitude toward sexual assault victims and their general credibility.

Further, the docuseries uncovered what could be a key piece of evidence — namely, the notes of investigator Paul Williams indicating the social workers at the Yale-New Haven clinic had believed Dylan, despite the “sanitized” report submitted to the family court in the custody case.

Today, we live in a post-Bill Cosby world, in which the public has seen a beloved celebrity convicted and jailed for decades-old sexual misconduct. Whether Woody Allen will one day find himself joining the ranks of Cosby, Allen’s collaborator, Harvey Weinstein, or his friend Jeffrey Epstein, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the choice will almost certainly rest, for the first time, entirely with Dylan Farrow.

A note from the author: I began my legal career as a staff prosecutor for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, bringing child-protective proceedings against neglectful and abusive parents. Cases involving alleged child sexual abuse routinely posed the same massive difficulty for prosecutors: lack of a clear story in the victim child’s own words.

Because hearsay is admissible in child-protective proceedings, and because the burden of proof is lower in family court than in criminal court, it is common for cases to hinge on the second-hand accounts of the statements of children. However, traumatized young children often lack both the vocabulary and the willingness to give cogent accounts of their abuse.

Rarely does an investigation yield anything approaching the evidentiary linchpin of a contemporaneous videotape of a child victim specifically articulating the details of a discrete incident of sexual abuse. There is no question in my mind that an abuse case — and likely even a case for total termination of parental rights — could have been waged and won against Woody Allen. In fact, given the circumstances, a court might even have found Mia Farrow liable for child neglect for failure to adequately shield her children from contact with Allen.

That CWA opted to keep its involvement limited to the family’s custody proceedings — and failed to open any child-protective proceeding of its own — is stunning.

Paul Williams’ statement in the docuseries that, “it is customary for the ‘big wigs’ to take over in high-profile case,” rings true with me. The majority of child-protective work is done behind closed doors: sealed court records, in-camera interviews, and closed court proceedings are necessary aspects of the process, designed to protect the privacy of families and the integrity of the system. However, the public nature of the Allen v. Farrow custody dispute promised an unusual level of scrutiny for the agency. Only the special handling of these celebrity parents could explain why CWA declined to pursue such a winnable case.

If you suspect that a child has been subject to abuse or maltreatment, please report your suspicions by calling 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453), or visiting https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/responding/reporting/how/.

[screengrab via HBO films]

Editor’s note: This piece was updated to include additional legal analysis.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos