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Celebrity chef Mario Batali acquitted of sexual misconduct

Celebrity chef Mario Batali acquitted of sexual misconduct

BOSTON (AP) — Mario Batali was found not guilty of indecent assault and battery on Tuesday, following a swift trial in which the celebrity chef waived his right to have a jury decide his fate.

The 61-year-old former Food Network personality quickly strode out of the courtroom with his lawyers without commenting on the case, which centered on allegations that he aggressively kissed and groped a Boston woman while taking a selfie at a bar in 2017.

In delivering the verdict, Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton agreed with Batali’s lawyers that the accuser had credibility issues and that photos suggested the encounter was amicable.

“Pictures are worth a thousand words,” he said.

But the judge also had stern words for the former star of shows like “Molto Mario” and “Iron Chef America,” who prosecutors argued was visibly drunk in the photos.

“The defendant did not cover himself in glory on the night in question,” Stanton said. “His conduct, his appearance and his demeanor were not befitting of a public person of his stature at that time.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden said he was disappointed in the verdict but grateful Batali’s accuser had come forward.

“It can be incredibly difficult for a victim to disclose a sexual assault,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Batali, who pleaded not guilty to indecent assault and battery in 2019, had faced up to 2 1/2 years in jail and would’ve been required to register as a sex offender if convicted.

His accuser, who also exited the courtroom without speaking with reporters, had testified how she felt confused and powerless to do anything to stop Batali at the time.

But in his closing statements, Batali’s lawyer Antony Fuller portrayed the 32-year-old Boston-area resident as an “admitted liar” who is financially motivated because she’s filed a lawsuit seeking more than $50,000 in damages from Batali.

“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 of the two-day trial.

Prosecutor Nina Bonelli countered in her closing statement that Batali’s lawyers were trying to “demonize” the woman, when it was their client on trial over his conduct.

She argued it was “absolutely undeniable” from the photos that Batali was drunk. What’s not shown, she said, is what was happening off camera as he also grabbed the accuser’s private areas.

Bonelli added the woman tried to “de-escalate” the unwanted touching 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.”

Batali is among a number of high-profile men who have faced a public reckoning during the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment in recent years.

After four women accused him of inappropriate touching in 2017, he stepped down from day-to-day operations at his restaurant empire and left the since-discontinued ABC cooking show “The Chew.”

Batali also apologized, acknowledging the allegations “match up” with ways he has acted.

“I have made many mistakes,” 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 and other staff sexually harassed employees.

In Boston, he had opened a branch of the popular Italian food marketplace Eataly and a Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca in the city’s Seaport District. But he has since been bought out of his stake in Eataly, and the Babbo restaurant in Boston has closed.

Philip Marcelo, The Associated Press