The district attorney described the woman who said former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had groped her as “credible,” but added that proving her allegation would be difficult.
Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York will not be prosecuted in the criminal case involving allegations that he groped a former aide in the Executive Mansion in 2020, the Albany County district attorney announced on Tuesday.
The announcement came on the heels of recent decisions by district attorneys in Nassau and Westchester Counties not to bring charges against Mr. Cuomo on other sexual misconduct allegations. And it brought to an end the only criminal charge thus far related to a blistering report from the state attorney general that led to his resignation in August.
While the Albany district attorney said he was “deeply troubled” by allegations against Mr. Cuomo made by the former aide, Brittany Commisso, his statement underscored the difficulties of building a criminal case out of them.
“While many have an opinion regarding the allegations against the former governor, the Albany County D.A.’s Office is the only one who has a burden to prove the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” David Soares, the Albany County district attorney, said in a statement. “While we found the complainant in this case cooperative and credible, after review of all the available evidence we have concluded that we cannot meet our burden at trial.”
The move to drop the case in Albany came days before Mr. Cuomo was set to be arraigned in court on Friday. The Albany County sheriff’s office had filed a criminal complaint in October charging Mr. Cuomo with forcible touching, a misdemeanor sex crime that carries a penalty of up to one year in jail, but it had remained unclear whether Mr. Soares would pursue the case.
Prosecutors in Manhattan and in Oswego County are also known to be investigating other allegations from the report, but the most serious threat against Mr. Cuomo appeared to stem from Albany, where officials had accused him of forcible touching.
The Manhattan district attorney has also closed without bringing charges an investigation into Mr. Cuomo’s handling of nursing home deaths toward the start of the pandemic, a lawyer for Mr. Cuomo who was briefed by prosecutors said on Monday.
Mr. Soares’s decision, which was first reported by the Times Union of Albany, is the last chapter in an explosive case that was defined not just by its high-profile nature, but a string of missteps in the way it was handled, setting off tensions between the Albany sheriff and district attorney and leading to accusations from Mr. Cuomo’s camp that the case was politically motivated.
The complaint stemmed from allegations made by Ms. Commisso, a former executive assistant to Mr. Cuomo who said he groped her breast while they were alone in his private residence near the end of 2020.
“What he did to me was a crime,” Ms. Commisso told “CBS This Morning” and the Times Union in a joint interview last August. “It was not welcomed, and it was certainly not consensual.”
Mr. Cuomo, a once-powerful Democrat who rose to national prominence for his leadership during the start of the coronavirus pandemic, resigned after becoming engulfed in scandal.
Mr. Cuomo, who served as governor for more than a decade, repeatedly denied Ms. Commisso’s accusation and his lawyers mounted a vigorous defense seeking to undermine her account. A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo declined to comment on Tuesday.
Ms. Commisso’s lawyer, Brian Premo, said that she has “had no authority or voice’’ in the decision over the disposition of her case.
“I can confirm only that in this case my client had no control over the filing or prosecution of criminal charges,” he said. “The only thing she has any power over is her resolution to continue to speak the truth, and seek justice in an appropriate civil action, which she will do in due course.”
The collapse of the various investigations into Mr. Cuomo, even though multiple entities that investigated him, from the State Assembly to local prosecutors, said they found his accusers to be believable, underscores the difficulty of pursuing cases of sexual misconduct in criminal court.
The acting district attorney of Nassau County described a state trooper’s allegations that Mr. Cuomo had run his hand across her stomach to be “credible, deeply troubling, but not criminal under New York law.” Prosecutors in Westchester had looked at instances in which two women, including the trooper, said Mr. Cuomo had given them unwanted kisses on the cheek.
Prosecutors in Albany would have had to clear a relatively high bar had they proceeded with the criminal charge, which required them to prove not only that Mr. Cuomo had touched Ms. Commisso, but that he did so with the intention of satisfying his own sexual desire, or of degrading her.
Because cases like these rarely have irrefutable physical evidence, much of the burden would likely have fallen on Ms. Commisso’s testimony. Of the roughly 1,400 cases like Mr. Cuomo’s brought in a typical year across the state, almost four in 10 are dismissed or dropped, state criminal statistics show.
That is in part because the standard used in criminal court — proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has taken place — is the highest in the legal system, according to Deborah Tuerkheimer, a former Manhattan prosecutor and a law professor at Northwestern University who has written about sexual assault cases.
“Jurors bring with them a set of biases, misconceptions, and inaccurate understandings of abuse when they hear a case involving sexual violence,” she said. “Prosecutors often decide, rightly or wrongly, that the type of cross-examination that an accuser will face will make it unlikely for a juror to convict.”
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That can occur, she said, even in cases where a woman is deemed to be credible, a phenomenon Ms. Tuerkheimer described as a “credibility discount.”
“They might say, we believe her, but we weren’t convinced beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.
The women who have accused Mr. Cuomo could still file lawsuits in civil court, where the threshold for liability is lower than in a criminal setting.
Legal hurdles aside, the case against Mr. Cuomo in Albany was riddled with controversy from the onset.
It began when Ms. Commisso filed a complaint with Sheriff Craig D. Apple of Albany County shortly after Letitia James, the attorney general, released her report on Aug. 3. The report concluded that Mr. Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple women, including Ms. Commisso.
Sheriff Apple’s office investigated Ms. Commisso’s account and, nearly three months later, on Oct. 28, filed criminal charges against Mr. Cuomo in Albany City Court, describing the case against him as “very solid.”
He did so, however, without consulting Ms. Commisso or coordinating with Mr. Soares’s office, which would be tasked with prosecuting the case.
The decision by Sheriff Apple was as unusual as it was unexpected, especially in a high-stakes case involving a former governor, and it was seen by some as a tactic to make headlines or pressure Mr. Soares, who was caught off guard, into pursuing the case.
Mr. Soares, however, did not commit to doing so. In early November, he wrote a letter to the judge overseeing the case saying that the complaint filed by the sheriff’s office was “potentially defective,” and that he would need more time to finish his own investigation into Mr. Cuomo.
Judge Holly Trexler of Albany City Court granted his request, and postponed Mr. Cuomo’s arraignment, originally scheduled for Nov. 17, until Jan. 7.
As the court date loomed, Mr. Cuomo’s team continued to question the integrity of the case, suggesting that politics may have played a role, and noting that Sheriff Apple had filed the complaint the same week that Ms. James, whom Mr. Cuomo has blamed for his demise, declared her candidacy for governor. (Ms. James, who dropped out of the race last month, has said the timing of the announcements was purely coincidental.)
One concern for prosecutors, beyond the high burden of proof, may have been the fact that there was initially confusion around the date that Ms. Commisso said Mr. Cuomo touched her inappropriately, a discrepancy Mr. Cuomo’s lawyers seized on to cast her account as faulty.
She initially told investigators it had happened in November 2020, but that she could not be sure of the exact date. Relying on records that documented her presence in the Executive Mansion, investigators later determined, and Ms. Commisso agreed, that the incident had likely occurred on Dec. 7.