NEW YORK (AP) — Actor Cuba Gooding Jr. pleaded guilty Wednesday to forcibly kissing a worker at a New York nightclub in 2018 in a deal that is likely to keep him out of jail.
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 figure” who meant no harm.
His admissions were part of a plea deal that came nearly three years after the Oscar-winning “Jerry Maguire” star was arrested in the case that saw several delays as his lawyers sought to get charges reduced or dismissed.
“I apologize for making anybody ever feel inappropriately touched,” he said. “I am a celebrity figure. I come into contact with people. I never want them to feel slighted or uncomfortable in any way.”
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Gooding, 54, accused of violating three different women at various Manhattan night spots in 2018 and 2019, pleaded guilty to just one of the allegations. He told the judge he “kissed the waitress on her lips” without consent at the LAVO New York club.
The deal lets Gooding avoid any possibility of jail time if he continues “alcohol and behavior modification” counseling for six months. After that, he can withdraw the misdemeanor plea 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 fondled her without her consent at Magic Hour Rooftop Bar & Lounge near Times Square.
The accuser in that encounter, Kelsey Harbert, was allowed to speak in court on Wednesday, recounting how, out of nowhere, Gooding grabbed her breast “as if I was a piece of meat for dinner that night.”
Harbert, now 31, told the court she thought Gooding was getting off easy, while his accusers continue to suffer.
“I feel very sad and feel very lost for 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 alleged he pinched a server’s buttocks after making a sexually suggestive remark to her at TAO Downtown and forcibly touched the woman at LAVO, both in 2018.
Gooding had previously pleaded not guilty to six misdemeanor counts and 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 “commonplace gestures” or misunderstandings into crimes.
Judge Curtis Farber earlier had ruled if the Gooding case went to trial, prosecutors could have called two additional women to testify about their allegations that Gooding also violated them. Prosecutors say the judge had since reversed that decision — a ruling that factored into their decision to not go to trial.
"We credit and believe all the survivors in this case," said prosecutor Coleen Balbert. But under the circumstances, Wednesday's outcome "is a fair and equitable disposition,” she added.
Along with the criminal case, Gooding is accused in a lawsuit of raping a woman in New York City in 2013. After a judge issued a default judgment in July because Gooding hadn’t responded to the lawsuit, the actor retained a lawyer and is fighting the allegations.
Gloria Allred, an attorney representing three of Gooding's accusers, said in a statement that they would press ahead with civil litigation to hold him accountable.
“Justice was significantly delayed in this case for many reasons, and I do not feel that justice was achieved today with the entry of this plea, although I do understand why under the circumstances that the prosecution offered a plea,” she said.
By TOM HAYS Associated Press
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