Celebrity chef Mario Batali was acquitted Tuesday of charges that he indecently assaulted a woman while taking selfies with her at a Boston bar in 2017, capping a two-day trial that hinged on the accuser’s credibility.
Natali Tene, 32, testified that Batali grabbed her buttocks, breasts, and groin at Towne Stove and Spirits in the Back Bay. But Batali’s lawyer raised questions about Tene’s account by confronting her with texts in which she joked with friends about the encounter and discussed ways to profit from it after she learned other women had accused Batali of assault.
“This case is about credibility,” Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton said before delivering his verdict in the bench trial. Tene has “significant credibility issues,” he said, and prosecutors had not met their burden of proof.
Stanton also had harsh words for Batali, 61, a disgraced television personality and restaurateur who has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. At the bar, Batali was drunk and “was grabbing me in a way that I had never been touched before,” Tene testified.
“Mr. Batali did not cover himself in glory on the night in question,” Stanton said. “His conduct and his appearance and his demeanor were not befitting of a public person of his stature at that time. It is a lesson for all of those people in public or celebrity positions.”
Batali declined to comment as he left the courtroom, hugging a supporter on his way out. Tene left the courtroom before Stanton finished delivering his verdict. Batali, who had waived his right to a jury trial, did not take the stand in his own defense and his lawyers did not call any witnesses.
Prosecutors said they were disappointed by the verdict but stood by Tene, who through her lawyer granted the Globe permission to identify her as Batali’s accuser.
“Obviously the verdict wasn’t the one we hoped for, but all we can do is give these victims a voice, and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” said Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Nina Bonelli, who prosecuted the case. “This case was the only criminal charge brought against Mr. Batali and we are always hopeful, despite what we know to be very difficult cases, that the opportunity for survivors to get up there and be heard encourages other women to come forward.”
“While we’re disappointed in the judge’s verdict, my office will not waver in our support for the victim in this case,” Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden added. “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.”
Tene testified that she went to the restaurant around 9:30 p.m. on March 31 and spent several hours socializing with a friend. Shortly after midnight, she spotted Batali sitting at the bar and snapped a photo of him over her shoulder. Batali beckoned her over and Tene said she apologized for taking the photo without his permission. But Batali said he wasn’t bothered by it and suggested they take selfie photos together.
On Tuesday, Tene’s friend Rachel Buckley testified that Tene shared a detailed account about the meeting with Batali in April 2017, the month it happened.
“She explained that it started with her taking secretive pictures of Mario Batali and then him noticing, and then insisting they take selfies,’' Buckley testified. “At first it was just selfies, and then it turned into groping.”
“What did she tell you about the groping that took place?” Bonelli, the prosecutor, asked.
“For lack of a better way to put it, she was grossed out,” Buckley said.
On cross examination, Buckley acknowledged she had urged Tene to sell photos of the inebriated Batali to the TMZ website in December 2017.
“Bah ha ha ha. Oh My God please do it,” Buckley texted her friend. “He looked wasted in them didn’t he?”
After Tene shared a photo that showed Batali with his eyes closed, Tene texted back to Buckley.
“Oh, my God, I want to sell these photos,” Tene wrote.
Tene has also filed a civil lawsuit against Batali, which is pending in Suffolk Superior Court.
In his closing argument, Batali’s lawyer, Anthony Fuller, said Tene did not appear uncomfortable or distressed in the photos with Batali.
“If somebody gooses you, grabs your privates or your butt, you are going to flinch, you are going to blink, you are going to make a face, you are going to do something,” he said. “You don’t see any of that in any of these photos.”
Stanton agreed, saying “the pictures tell a thousand words.”
“Her reaction or lack thereof to the alleged assault is telling,” Stanton said before delivering the verdict.
In her closing argument, Bonelli said the evidence supported a guilty verdict against Batali, whom the prosecutor described as an inebriated “much older, powerful celebrity.”
“The kissing, the pulling, the groping — she never asked for it,” Bonelli said. “She never wanted it. And she never consented to it.”
Fuller, the defense lawyer, also focused on Tene’s actions while serving as a juror in a domestic violence trial in Middlesex Superior Court in 2018. While testifying, Tene admitted that she had claimed on a juror form that she was clairvoyant in hopes of avoiding jury duty. Once on the jury, she texted friends that she believed the suspect was guilty before the evidence was over and had Googled his background — all in violation of explicit orders of the trial judge.
The text messages uncovered during the investigation triggered an inquiry in Middlesex Superior Court, where Tene pleaded guilty to contempt of court Friday. The case was continued without a finding, meaning it will be dismissed after two years if she stays out of trouble.
“Her conduct as a sworn juror . . . was egregious,” Stanton said from the bench Tuesday. “And it was offensive to the rule of law.”
Bonelli said that while Tene had made poor decisions, they did not excuse or justify Batali’s misconduct.
“Ms. Tene has made mistakes that we all knew would be aired out at this trial, and she came here and admitted to them anyways,” Bonelli said. “She came here as the imperfect woman she was, not for sympathy, but because this happened to her.”
Tene remained largely silent for several months after the encounter with Batali while she considered her options, Bonelli said. After reading about other women who alleged Batali had touched them inappropriately, she spoke to a reporter for a story that included some of the photos she provided.
“This has never been about money,” Bonelli said. “It was a sexual assault that happened to her and maybe to others . . . and she had to tell her story for herself and for these other women.”
Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Matt Yan contributed to this report.