A Massachusetts judge acquitted Mario Batali of an indecent assault and battery on Tuesday, after a two-day bench trial quickly wrapped up following testimony by the celebrity chef’s accuser and her friend.
“The complaining witness has significant credibility issues,” Judge James Stanton said.
“Testimony about her scheme to evade a $200 gym membership fee by creating a legal document is indicative of that lack of credibility,” Stanton added.
The verdict follows a whirlwind trial where the court heard from Batali’s accuser Natali Tene and her friend Rachael Buckley about an alleged incident from 2017. Tene had claimed that Batali kissed and groped her without her consent.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard in our system of justice, as well it should be,” Stanton said. “It requires that the fact-finder be satisfied to an abiding conviction of moral certainty that the charge is true. That’s not the case here.”
“Score a Big Hit”
This much of the case was undisputed: Tene posed for selfies with the former Food Network star, and she later told her friend Buckley about what she described as Batali groping her. Tene later shared her story with the website Eater, which posted a story based on accusations by four woman over the course of two decades.
After the article was published during the height of the #MeToo movement in late 2017, Batali did not deny the allegations. He offered a public apology acknowledging that “much,” though not all, of the allegations rang true. To some ridicule, Batali followed that mea culpa with a cinnamon roll recipe.
A sorry and a recipe, however, did not end the matter. Tene took her allegations to the Boston Police Department, and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office charged Batali criminally in 2019.
During closing arguments, Batali’s defense attorney Anthony Fuller took shots at the credibility of his client’s accuser, whom he claimed had been involved in a small-time swindle.
“We know that she lied and scammed a gym for $200,” Fuller told the judge, who decided the case without a jury.
“What wouldn’t she do to score a big hit from the celebrity chef that she took selfies with?” he asked.
The defense summations followed withering cross-examination of Buckley, who was grilled on a series of text messages with Tene appearing to discuss selling photographs of Batali to a tabloid and scoring a hefty civil settlement.
“LMFAO, I want to sell these photos, dude,” Tene allegedly wrote, using internet shorthand for “laughing my f***ing ass off.”
“This is now nine months after she allegedly told you about her quote-unquote ‘assault,’ right?” Batali’s other defense attorney Courtney Caruso asked Buckley.
“Yes, approximately,” Buckley replied.
Pointing to these and other jovial text exchanges, Fuller added: “She lies for fun. She lies for money. And in this case, it appears she lied for both.”
Batali’s defense team also made hay out of the fact that Tene returned to Eataly Boston—a restaurant partly owned by the celebrity chef—the day that the Eater exposé was published.
“She went to the very place where she was assaulted on the very day she learns that a reporter is going to publicize her truth,” Fuller said, with heavy sarcasm.
Noting the heavy burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Fuller said that the commonwealth cannot meet it on the word of a “proven and admitted liar.”
“This Wasn’t Isolated”
Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Nina Bonelli said that Tene’s story remained consistent over the course of half a decade, however one might judge the tone of her messages.
“This wasn’t about money,” Bonelli said. “It was about a sexual assault. She wasn’t alone. This wasn’t isolated.”
Bonelli cast the defense’s aspersions on Tene as victim-blaming.
“Ms. Tene has made mistakes that we all knew would be aired,” Bonelli said. “She came here as the imperfect woman that she is not for sympathy but because this happened to her.”
After the alleged incident, Tene wrote in a jury questionnaire that she had never been a crime victim. Bonelli said that this was because Tene had not reported the alleged groping incident at the time. Batali hadn’t been charged, let alone convicted, of that crime. In that questionnaire, Tene reportedly claimed to be clairvoyant.
Judge Stanton alluded to that alleged conduct by Tene as a juror candidate, which he described as “egregious” and “offensive to the rule of law.”
As for Tene’s text messages, Bonelli cast them as reflecting her coping mechanisms.
“Maybe we don’t like the way that she talks about it,” Bonelli said, referring to the alleged assault. “Maybe we even think it’s distasteful or immature.”
“How is a sexual assault victim supposed to react when a powerful celebrity assaults them in public?” the prosecutor asked.
(Photo via the Law&Crime Network)
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