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Cosby defense attorneys used personal attacks to try to discredit witnesses

Five women who testified that Cosby drugged and molested them were defiant in the face of sometimes brutal cross-examination this week.

Retrial Of Bill Cosby Underway For Sexual Assault Charges Mark Makela/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

“Why are you here?” a Montgomery County assistant district attorney asked Andrea Constand in a Pennsylvania court Friday, during her testimony about her allegation that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2004.

“For justice,” Constand replied.

Constand took the stand on Friday for the first time since the original trial 10 months ago, recalling once again the encounter with Cosby, where she says he handed her pills to relax that left her woozy. Cosby, she said, penetrated her as she lay immobilized.

Constand told the same details to a jury last year, which deadlocked on whether to convict Cosby of assault.

But unlike the first trial, this time around, five other women also told their stories about Cosby. They recounted in sometimes graphic, disturbing detail their encounters with him. Janice Dickinson, a former supermodel who said Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982 in Lake Tahoe, said she thought, as Cosby assaulted her, “Here was America’s Dad on top of me.”

Just one of Cosby’s accusers testified at the first trial, and she was not among the women called in court this week. Cosby is not on trial for the incidents they described — something the judge had to remind the jury — but the five women serve as “prior bad acts” witnesses, there to establish that Cosby had a pattern, one that speaks to the nature of the crime for which he is standing trial: drugging and molesting Constand. (Cosby has denied all the allegations against him and maintains his encounter with Constand was consensual.)

These women also faced sometimes brutal cross-examination. Cosby’s defense team questioned their motives for speaking out, suggesting they sought money or fame — a theme lead defense attorney Tom Mesereau hammered about Constand herself in his opening arguments. The defense also pulled apart inconsistencies in the witnesses’ testimonies and dredged up problems from their pasts: drug and alcohol abuse, run-ins with the law.

But the five other accusers withstood the torrent of questions and recriminations from the defense. They admitted to confusion about what happened to them decades ago, and that they spent years grappling with their encounters with Cosby. Yet they were adamant about their allegations: They were drugged, they were assaulted, and Cosby did it.

Or as Dickinson said, in a fiery exchange during cross-examination when a defense attorney attempted to discredit her with dirt from her past: “So what? Cosby raped me in Tahoe.”

The women tell their stories under oath

Constand testified on Friday, and the defense began its cross-examination the same day — and will continue on Monday. But the testimonies of the five other women, given earlier in the week, carried their own weight; this was their one, if incomplete, attempt at justice.

Their stories spun a damning narrative about Cosby over four days. Thomas, the first woman to testify, said she was 24 and an aspiring actress when she met Cosby through a talent agency in 1984 in Reno, Nevada. She said Cosby offered to mentor her and asked her to read a script, where she would play a drunk person. Thomas said Cosby gave her a glass of wine, and she took a sip and blacked out.

The rest of the night came in “snapshots,” she said on Tuesday, saying she remembers Cosby trying to force oral sex and waking up naked in bed with him.

Chelan Lasha recounted a 1986 encounter with Cosby in Las Vegas, when she was a 17-year-old aspiring actress who had just graduated from high school. She said Cosby expressed interest in helping her with her career and invited her to his suite at the Las Vegas Hilton.

When Lasha arrived, she said, a photographer took some pictures of her. She had a cold, so Cosby offered her a pill that he described as an antihistamine and gave her a shot of amaretto. Lasha, who had a cold at the time, said she trusted Cosby and took the pills, which left her immobilized. She said she remembers Cosby grunting and humping her; when she came to, she was naked.

Janice Baker-Kinney said she met Cosby as a bartender in Reno in 1982. She said Cosby gave her pills, and as they played backgammon, she passed out. She woke up the next morning undressed, in bed with Cosby.

Janice Dickinson said Thursday that in 1982, Cosby gave her a drug that he told her would help with her menstrual cramps, before assaulting her. “His robe opened,” she testified. “He smelled like cigar and espresso and his body odor.”

The fifth accuser, Lise-Lotte Lublin, said Cosby gave her two drinks in his hotel room in Las Vegas in 1989, when she was 23. She said she remembers Cosby stroking her hair before she blacked out.

The defense tries to discredit the accusers — but the women are defiant

Cosby’s team’s primary defense has been to try to paint Constand as an opportunist, using the $3.38 million civil settlement she received from Cosby in 2006 to anchor that claim. They’re also trying to sow the same doubts about the other women — that they’re not just liars but are motivated by money or fame.

It began with the first additional accuser called, Heidi Thomas. Defense attorney Kathleen Bliss implied Thomas was making a career out of her allegations against Cosby, bringing up numerous interviews and media spots she has given since she spoke publicly about her allegation in January 2015. “Since coming out in January [2015], you have [had] a lot of attention, wouldn’t you agree?” Bliss asked.

“I’m sure that’s what many people would say, yes,” Thomas replied. She said she had never received money for interviews except for airfare and hotel. She also said many of her public appearances came through her advocacy to change the statute of limitations for sexual assault, including in her home state of Colorado.

Attorneys did the same to Dickinson, who testified Thursday. In a heated exchange, defense attorney Mesereau brought up Dickinson’s 2002 memoir in which she said she took two quaaludes — sedatives that were used as party drugs in the 1970s and ’80s, which Cosby has admitted giving to women before sex — by herself, and never entered Cosby’s room.

Dickinson said she had discussed the rape with her editor but left it out for legal reasons. “It’s all a fabrication there,” she said. “I wanted the paycheck from the book.”

“You told a tale to the jury today that is completely different from the book,” Mesereau shot back. “You made things up to get a paycheck.”

Dickinson said that the book, not her testimony, was false. “You take poetic license in what you do,” she said. “Today I am on a sworn Bible.”

The defense tried to discredit the women in other ways. Many of them were the obvious tactics of pointing out discrepancies in testimony and statements — why dates didn’t match up, or why the women had contact with Cosby after they say their assault happened. How, the defense implied, could they be believed if they had gaps in their memory about the nights of the alleged assaults?

But they also went after the witnesses in more personal ways, airing the problems of their past in an attempt to bolster the argument that these women are unreliable. The defense brought up the women’s past substance abuse problems, for example, referencing Dickinson’s mention of drugs in her book.

Lawyers tried the same tactic on Baker-Kinney, trying to imply she took the drugs Cosby gave her willingly, which she denied. Mesereau questioned her past experimentation with drugs and past struggle with alcoholism; Baker-Kinney was open about her problems but refused to associate them with Cosby.

Lasha — who tearfully exclaimed, “You remember, don’t you, Mr. Cosby?” during her testimony Wednesday — was convicted of making a false statement to the police in 2007 about an unrelated case, an easy, and not unpersuasive, line of attack that made some observers question why the prosecution enlisted Lasha.

As the New York Times reports:

Under cross-examination, Kathleen Bliss, one of Mr. Cosby’s lawyers pushed her to answer why she had not told police investigating her Cosby account about her 2007 conviction for making a false statement to the police in an unrelated case.

“You knew you had a conviction for filing a false police report in 2007, but you didn’t tell them, did you?,” Ms. Bliss asked. Ms. Lasha responded, “I said I had a criminal history,” but conceded that the police report did not make mention of that.

The defense questioned the witnesses’ associations with Constand, implying they were all coordinating to take down Cosby. That prompted a few memorable exchanges: Baker-Kinney called out Mesereau for visibly rolling his eyes when she responded to a question about her past contact with Constand.

And when a defense attorney questioned Thomas’s open support for Constand, including a posting on Facebook, she shot back, “I want to see a serial rapist convicted.”

But when it comes to cross-examination, this is what a high-profile defense is paid to do. Cosby’s lawyers are deploying the strategies they believe will be most effective to discredit Cosby’s accusers and convince a jury of seven men and five women that they are unreliable at best and liars at worst.

It was a stark, unvarnished example of why many accusers fear speaking out about sexual assault and harassment. This is the undercurrent of #MeToo, what made it so powerful to hear survivors come forward together — and what makes the still-nascent movement so fragile.