clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Bill Cosby isn’t going to jail, despite his shocking testimony

Bill Cosby speaks at the Jackie Robinson Foundation 2014 Awards Dinner
Bill Cosby speaks at the Jackie Robinson Foundation 2014 Awards Dinner
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

This week, the Associated Press obtained court documents that showed Bill Cosby admitted under oath in 2005 that he had procured Quaaludes, a sedative, to give to women he was planning to have sex with. Cosby's admission came during his deposition for a lawsuit filed by Andrea Constand, who accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her. According to the AP, Cosby also admitted to giving Constand three half-pills of Benadryl.

The admission seems particularly significant because many women have now come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual assaults that follow a similar, disturbing pattern: that Cosby had offered them a drink that was laced with some type of sedative, and then raped or sexually assaulted them after they were impaired or unconscious. (Several women have also accused Cosby of drugging them but not sexually assaulting them, or of kissing or fondling them against their will without drugging them.) Cosby's testimony about procuring drugs to give to women he was planning to have sex with isn't an admission that the women's allegations were true — according to the AP, when Constand's lawyers asked if he ever gave women the Quaaludes without their knowledge, he refused to answer — but it does seem damning.

However, these new revelations almost certainly won't lead to criminal charges against Cosby, and new lawsuits will face major challenges. The deadlines for most of the alleged victims to file civil claims passed years ago. And the passage of time, plus the lack of physical evidence to support the allegations, means that criminal prosecution is extremely unlikely.

The statute of limitations has already ended for most potential civil suits

Court proceedings are governed by time limits known as statutes of limitations. (The theory here is that cases should be heard promptly or not at all, with the exception of a small subset of exceptionally serious crimes, like murder, which generally do not have statutes of limitations.) In order to proceed, civil suits and criminal charges must be filed within the specified window of time. If they are not, then they can't move forward, no matter how much evidence there is of criminal guilt or civil responsibility.

Most of the allegations against Cosby that we know about describe assaults that took place in 2004 or before. That means the statutes of limitations for civil cases have almost certainly passed, even though they vary by state and we don't know the locations of all of the alleged assaults.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, where Cosby has a home and where Andrea Constand alleges he drugged and raped her in 2004, the statute of limitations for most civil lawsuits is two years. This is a moot point for Constand, who filed and settled a suit years ago. But in New York, where Barbara Bowman says an alleged assault took place in the 1980s, the claims would probably have a one-year statute of limitations. That means that it's too late for civil suits to move forward.

There are ways to get around the statute of limitations, but they are limited. In California, for instance, lawsuits arising out of childhood sexual abuse can be filed within three years of the date when the victim discovers that the sexual abuse has caused a psychological injury or illness. Judy Huth alleges that Cosby molested her when she was 15, and has filed a lawsuit claiming that it has been less than three years since she discovered that her psychological injuries were the result of Cosby's actions.

Several of the accusers have filed a defamation suit against Cosby, alleging he damaged their reputations by accusing them of lying in their accusations against him. That gets around the statute of limitations because it's technically about his denial of their accusations, not the underlying assaults themselves. But even if they are successful, they will only be able to recover damages for the harm to their reputations — not for the assaults themselves.

Statutes of limitations for criminal cases are longer, but there are other roadblocks for Cosby's accusers

The statutes of limitations for criminal cases are usually longer, so it's possible that some of the alleged assaults would still be within the chargeable period. For instance, in Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations to bring criminal charges for rape is 12 years. In New York, there is no statute of limitations for first-degree rape or some types of sexual assault. In California, the statute of limitations on rape prosecutions is ordinarily 10 years.

But even if some of the cases are within the statute of limitations, it is still very unlikely that any criminal charges would be brought against Cosby. Sexual assault cases are always difficult for prosecutors to win, but in these cases, the lack of physical evidence and the passage of time would probably make them impossible. For instance, Constand attempted to pursue a criminal case against Cosby in 2005. The prosecutor for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, at the time, Bruce Castor, told CNN in a recent interview that he believed her allegations were credible, but he still declined to charge Cosby because he wasn't able to corroborate Constand's claims with blood tests or a rape kit.

"Back then, the desire on our part to move forward was pretty strong," Castor said. "The problem with the case was she waited a year until she told police about it."

Chloe Goins, who claims that Cosby assaulted her in 2008 when she was 18 years old, filed charges against Cosby earlier this year. The LAPD is investigating her case, but it is not yet clear whether prosecutors will move forward with a case against Cosby.

All of that means that even Cosby's disturbing deposition testimony probably doesn't make it more likely that Cosby will face criminal charges. He doesn't appear to have admitted in the deposition that he drugged women without their consent, or that he had sex with them when they were too sedated to consent, which means a prosecutor would still face the challenge of proving those facts after all these years. So while Cosby's admission may seem damning in the court of public opinion, he probably won't ever be confronted with it in a court of law.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.