A Pennsylvania jury found Bill Cosby guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault on Thursday, one of the first major criminal convictions since the beginning of the #MeToo movement and a vindication for the dozens of women who alleged that the comedian known as “America’s Dad” drugged and sexually abused them.
In most of those cases, the statue of limitations passed long before the women came forward. But in 2015, Cosby was charged with the 2004 assault of Andrea Costand, who said Cosby had given her pills in his suburban Pennsylvania home that left her incapacitated, then molested her.
The case first went to trial in June 2017, and ended in a mistrial. Then came the #MeToo movement. After the New York Times and the New Yorker reported on the widespread allegations of sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, more and more stories came pouring out about high-profile men who abused their power.
Ten months elapsed between the two trials, but Cosby returned to court in a very different climate. And this time, during a two-week retrial that featured testimony from five other women who say Cosby assaulted them, too, the jury believed the women.
Cosby could face up to 10 years in prison for each of the three counts against him.
Cosby was on trial for drugging and assaulting a woman in 2004
Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, met Cosby in 2002, when she worked as the director of operations for the women’s basketball team. (Cosby, a former Temple student, served on the university’s board of trustees.) Constand said she considered Cosby, then in his 60s, a mentor. In January 2004 at Cosby’s home, she said, he gave her three blue pills that he told her would help to relieve stress. She took them, and became unfocused and confused. She said she passed out on the couch.
“I felt Mr. Cosby on the couch behind me, and my vagina was being penetrated quite forcefully, and I felt my breasts being touched,” Constand testified. She said she was too weak to fight Cosby off: “I wanted it to stop,” she said. “I couldn’t say anything. I was trying to get my hands to move, my legs to move, and the message just wasn’t getting there.”
In the first trial, the jury heard Constand’s story, and the story of one other accuser. This time, the judge allowed the prosecution to call five witnesses, all of whom said Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them. Their accusations dated back to the 1980s.
Cosby is not on trial for the incidents they described — something the judge had to remind the jury — but the five women were supposed to serve as “prior bad acts” witnesses who could establish Cosby had a pattern of assaulting women.
The five women, often defiant in the face of attacks on cross-examination, presented a powerful case. Their stories echoed Constand’s own story of confusion, paralysis, and shame as they realized they had been violated. “Here was America’s Dad on top of me,” Janice Dickinson, a former supermodel who said Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982 in Lake Tahoe, said in court, describing her shock during the assault.
Those five accusers and Constand herself withstood the torrent of questions and recriminations from the defense. Some women admitted to confusion about what happened to them decades ago, and that they spent years grappling with their encounters with Cosby. Yet all were adamant about their allegations: They were drugged, they were assaulted, and Cosby did it.
The defense tried to depict the sexual assault allegations against Cosby as a “witch hunt” — echoing some of the backlash to the #MeToo movement. Cosby and his new legal team also introduced new evidence, including a witness who testified that Constand had planned to accuse Cosby of sexual assault to get money. The sum of the settlement Constand reached with Cosby in 2006 — nearly $3.4 million — was also made public at trial, for the first time.
The defense tried to discredit Constand and the other women, attacking their credibility and drudging up their past misbehaviors. The comedian’s lawyers also tried to sow doubt by presenting his touring schedule and his private plane records to show he hadn’t scheduled trips to Philadelphia around the time of the alleged assault. Cosby did not take the stand in his own defense.
The prosecution closed the trial with a closing statement that lasted three hours. In it, prosecutors described Cosby as a serial predator. “That character assassination that Ms. Bliss put those women through was utterly shameful,” prosecutor Kristen Feden said of one of Cosby’s lawyers, Kathleen Bliss. “She’s the exact reason why women, victims of sexual assault and men don’t report these crimes.”
Cosby is one of the first celebrities convicted in the #MeToo era
Sexual assault allegations against Cosby began to circulate in earnest toward the end of 2014, when Cosby reemerged on a standup tour and had plans for an NBC sitcom and Netflix show and after a standup clip of comedian Hannibal Buress joking about Cosby being a rapist went viral. Dozens and dozens of women started speaking out. It felt like the start of a reckoning.
By now, about 60 women have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Cosby. Some were young models or actresses who attended meetings with Cosby on the promise of reading a script or getting career advice. Many kept their silence for years, assuming their word against that of a famous comedian would not be believed.
“For 30 years I really didn’t think about it,” Janice Baker-Kinney, a Cosby accuser testified at the trial. She paused slightly before continuing: “I didn’t want to think about it. And I will tell you that when women started coming forward and my husband — my current husband — started seeing articles in the paper about it, he kept pointing them out to me. And what I said was, ‘I don’t want to read them. I don’t want to hear about those.’ I … don’t know how to sum it up.”
Yet the women who once feared telling the truth about Cosby for years revealed themselves, and found the public was finally listening and starting to believe them.