News that Asia Argento paid a financial settlement to a former child actor who accused her of sexual assault raises a key question: Could the actress and #MeToo activist could face prosecution?
The Italian star, 42, allegedly had sex with Bennett, 22, in 2013, when she was 37 and he was 17. In California, the age of consent is 18. That’s led to speculation that Argento could be charged with statutory rape for sex acts allegedly performed in a Marina del Rey, California hotel room five years ago.
In a statement released Tuesday, Argento denied ever having “a sexual relationship” with Bennett and said she was “deeply shocked and hurt by having read news that is absolutely false.” She said her late boyfriend, chef Anthony Bourdain, pushed for the settlement to keep the accusations out of the media.
No formal complaint has been filed against Argento for the incident, first reported in the New York Times on August 19. According to the Times, Bennett and Argento reached a settlement after Bennett claimed Argento performed oral sex on him and they engaged in intercourse. The actress posted Instagram photos of the pair together on the same day the events reportedly occurred.
After the news of the settlement broke, a series of text messages surfaced, allegedly between Asia Argento and a friend, in which the Italian actress claimed Bennett initiated their sexual contact and continued sending her unsolicited nudes after their encounter.
“The public knows nothing, only what NYT wrote. Which is one sided,” she allegedly wrote in the text, according to TMZ. “The horny kid jumped me.”
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L.A.-based criminal defense attorney Alaleh Kamran — who is not involved in the matter— tells PEOPLE that the statute of limitations in California means it’s too late for prosecutors to try to bring the most typical charges for a case like this.
“Statutory rape [sex with a minor] and/or sexual assault can be charged either as felonies or as misdemeanors,” Kamran says. “The statute of limitations in these types of cases is usually one year for misdemeanors, and three years for felonies.”
The alleged incident occurred five years ago, past either statute of limitations.
More serious charges, including rape and molestation, have longer statutes of limitations, but require prosecutors to prove additional factors. Legal experts says there is a lack of actionable evidence so far to move forward with a prosecution, and the alleged text messages would be considered hearsay.
The existence of an alleged photo of Argento and Bennett together in bed smiling could “tend to show that maybe it was not a situation based off force or fear,” says L.A. attorney J. Tooson, who also hasn’t been retained by either party.
Bennett spoke out about the incident for the first time on Wednesday, with a statement explaining why he didn’t come forward earlier.
“I did not initially speak out about my story because I chose to handle it in private with the person who wronged me,” read the statement. “My trauma resurfaced as she came out as a victim herself. I have not made a public statement in the past days and hours because I was ashamed and afraid to be part of the public narrative.”
Bennett’s statement makes no mention of wanting to press charges against Argento, only that he “would like to move past this event in my life, and today I choose to move forward, no longer in silence.”
Tooson says that because the actor did not press charges at the time of the incident and the statute of limitations has expired as to statutory rape and Bennett has been unresponsive to law enforcement inquiries, the DA will likely not proceed with a case against Argento.
“In the long run, unless they have additional details that haven’t made public, I don’t see this leading to prosecution,” Tooson says.