Actor Cuba Gooding Jr pleads guilty to forcible touch

New York (AFP) – Actor Cuba Gooding Jr pleaded guilty Wednesday to forcibly kissing a New York nightclub worker in 2018 in a deal likely to keep him out of prison.

Gooding also publicly apologized for the first time to two other women who accused him of similar behavior in separate encounters, calling himself a “celebrity” who meant no harm.

His confession was part of a plea bargain that came nearly three years after Oscar-winning star Jerry Maguire was arrested in a case that saw many delays as his lawyers sought to have the charges reduced or dismissed.

“I apologize for making anyone feel inappropriately touched,” he said. “I am a celebrity. I connect with people. I never want them to feel offended or uncomfortable in any way.”

Gooding, 54, accused of abusing three different women on different Manhattan nights in 2018 and 2019, has pleaded guilty to only one of the allegations. He told the judge that he “kissed the waitress on the lips” without her consent at LAVO New York.

The deal allows Gooding to avoid any possibility of imprisonment if he continues to provide “alcohol and behavior modification” counseling for six months. Then, he can withdraw the plea for misdemeanour and instead plead guilty to a lesser violation of harassment.

Gooding was arrested in June 2019 after a 29-year-old woman told police he had petted her without her consent at the Magic Hour Rooftop Bar & Lounge near Times Square.

The accused in that confrontation, Kelsey Harbert, was allowed to speak in court on Wednesday, and recounted how, out of nowhere, Gooding grabbed her breast “as if I were a piece of meat for dinner that night.”

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Harbert, 31, told the court she believed Gooding was walking easy, while his accusers still struggled.

“I feel so sad and so lost as to what I can do,” she said.

A few months after his arrest, Gooding was charged in two additional cases as more women came forward to accuse him of abuse. The new charges allege he pinched a server’s buttocks after making a sexual remark to her in TAO Downtown and forcibly touching the woman in LAVO, both in 2018.

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Gooding has previously pleaded not guilty to six misdemeanors and has denied all allegations of wrongdoing. His lawyers have argued that overzealous prosecutors, caught up in the fervor of the #MeToo movement, are trying to turn “uncommon gestures” or misunderstandings into crimes.

Judge Curtis Farber had previously ruled that if Gooding’s case had gone to trial, the plaintiffs could have called two additional women to testify about their allegations that Gooding also violated them. Prosecutors say the judge has since reversed that decision – a ruling that took into account their decision not to go to trial.

“We condemn and believe all survivors in this case,” said Prosecutor Colin Balbert. But under the circumstances, she added, Wednesday’s result is “a fair and equitable act.”

Besides the criminal case, Gooding was accused in a lawsuit of raping a woman in New York City in 2013. After a judge issued a hypothetical ruling in July because Gooding did not respond to the lawsuit, the actor hired a lawyer and fought the allegations.

Gloria Allred, an attorney representing three of Gooding’s accusers, said in a statement that she would press ahead with civil litigation to hold him accountable.

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“Justice has been significantly delayed in this case for many reasons, and I do not feel that justice has been served today by entering this petition, although I understand why under the circumstances in which the prosecution filed a petition,” she said.

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