Celebrity chef Mario Batali was found not guilty Tuesday by a judge in his Boston sexual misconduct trial.
Batali is charged with indecent assault and battery over a 2017 incident at a Back Bay restaurant. Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton found Batali not guilty, saying the complaining witness had "credibility issues" and found there was not enough evidence to find Batali guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"This case is about credibility and it’s the court’s job to assess the credibility of the witnesses," Stanton said. He pointed to concerns about the accuser's behavior as a sworn juror in another case and testimony about a scheme to evade paying a gym membership as concerning.
He also noted photographic evidence presented at the trial, including selfies showing moments in between when the alleged sexual assault was supposed to have happened, and said they called into question the credibility of the story.
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden said they were disappointed in the judge's verdict and would continue to support the victim.
"It can be incredibly difficult for a victim to disclose a sexual assault. When the individual who committed such an abhorrent act is in a position of power or celebrity, the decision to report an assault can become all the more challenging and intimidating. I’m grateful that the victim in this case made the decision to come forward, and to every survivor of sexual assault who makes that difficult decision," Hayden said in a statement.
Batali had nothing to say as he arrived at Boston Municipal Court for the second day of his trial in the morning. He did not take the stand.
The alleged victim said on the stand Monday, after the trial opened, that Batali groped her as she was taking selfies with him. The 32-year-old Boston-area software company worker said she felt confused and powerless to do anything to stop Batali.
In his closing statements, Batali’s lawyer Antony Fuller portrayed the victim as an “admitted liar” who is financially motivated, as she’s seeking more than $50,000 in damages from Batali in a separate lawsuit.
“In her world, truth is a flexible concept,” he said, referencing the woman’s recent admission of attempting to avoid jury service by claiming to be clairvoyant, which was a focus on Monday’s hearing.
Fuller also said the multiple photos the woman took with Batali suggest an “entirely consensual encounter” in which she doesn’t appear to show any unease.
“Photos and video don’t lie. They don’t have a financial motivation,” he said. “But she does. ”
Prosecutor Nina Bonelli countered in her closing statement that Batali’s lawyers were trying to “demonize” the woman, when it was in fact their client on trial over his conduct.
She argued it was “absolutely undeniable” from the photos that Batali was drunk and aggressively kissing the woman’s face. What’s not shown, she said, is what was happening off camera as he also grabbed her private areas.
Bonelli said the woman had tried to “de-escalate” the unwanted touching from the powerful celebrity by simply “smiling it off.”
“The kissing, the groping. She never asked for it. She never consented to it,” she said. “She just wanted a selfie.”
The accuser is also suing Batali in civil court.
Tuesday morning, her friend, Rachel Buckley, took the stand and testified that the accuser told her about the groping a few days after the alleged assault.
Batali’s defense attorney questioned the consistency of the accuser’s story over text messages between the two.
The prosecution rested its case in the morning, and the defense team did not call any witnesses ahead of the closing statements. The judge expected to give a verdict when court resumes at 2 p.m.
The trial opened Monday after Batali — in a surprise move — waived his right to a jury trial and opted instead to have a judge decide his fate.
“It was all happening so quickly and it was happening essentially the whole time,” the woman testified Monday. “Just a lot of touching.”
The woman also testified that she felt embarrassed by the 2017 incident — until she saw other women step forward to share similar encounters with Batali.
"This happened to me and this is my life," said the woman when asked by prosecutors why she also decided to speak out. "I want to be able to take control of what happened, come forward, say my piece and have everyone be accountable for their actions and behaviors."
Batali’s lawyer Anthony Fuller argued the assault never happened and that the accuser isn’t a credible witness and has a financial incentive to lie.
He also suggested she joked about her encounter in text messages with friends and ate at Eataly, the Italian marketplace Batali once owned, after the encounter.
"She’s not being truthful," Fuller said. "This is being fabricated for money and for fun."
Fuller also said the accuser, in an effort to get out of jury duty, recently pleaded guilty to lying during jury selection in another Massachusetts criminal trial because she claimed she was clairvoyant.
The accuser has filed a lawsuit against Batali seeking unspecified damages for “severe emotional distress” that’s still pending in Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston.
Batali, who pleaded not guilty to indecent assault and battery in 2019, could face up to 2 1/2 years in jail and be required to register as a sex offender if convicted. He’s expected to be in court throughout the proceedings, which could wrap up as soon as Tuesday.
Batali is among a number of high-profile men who have faced a public reckoning during the #MeToo social movement against sexual abuse and harassment in recent years.
The 61-year-old was once a Food Network fixture on shows like “Molto Mario” and “Iron Chef America.” But the ponytail-and-orange Croc-wearing personality’s high-flying career crumbled amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Four women accused him of inappropriate touching in 2017, after which he stepped down from day-to-day operations at his restaurant empire and left the since-discontinued ABC cooking show “The Chew.”
Batali has offered an apology, acknowledging the allegations “match up” with ways he has acted.
“I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team,” he said in an email newsletter at the time. “My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.”
Last year, Batali, his business partner and their New York City restaurant company agreed to pay $600,000 to resolve a four-year investigation by the New York attorney general’s office into allegations that Batali, restaurant managers and other workers sexually harassed employees.
In Boston, he opened a branch of the popular Italian food marketplace Eataly in the downtown Prudential Center in 2016 as well as a Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca in the city’s Seaport District in 2015.