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 said that the comedian known as “America’s Dad” drugged and sexually abused them.
In most of those cases, the statute 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 and 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.
The verdict: “We can say women are believed”
“Today, this jury has shown what the #MeToo movement is saying is that women are worthy of being believed,” Lili Bernard, one of the about 60 women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault, said outside the Montgomery County Courthouse after the jury announced its guilty verdict.
Bernard and other survivors sobbed openly and embraced after the guilty verdict — something that seemed out of reach after the mistrial last year.
Incredible scenes as women run weeping from the courtroom immediately after Cosby is found GUITLY, and tearfully embrace one another. pic.twitter.com/5GWThXycx9— David Mack (@davidmackau) April 26, 2018
“Last year, when I was sitting in the courtroom of the first trial, and the verdict was hung, I left with such a tremendous sense of disappointment,” Bernard told reporters. She stood with other survivors and attorney Gloria Allred, who represents more than 30 of Cosby’s accusers, including some who took the stand to testify as witnesses in the trial.
“We are so happy that finally we can say women are believed, and not only on #MeToo, but in a court of law where they were under oath,” Allred said, “where they testified truthfully, where they were attacked, where they were smeared, where they were denigrated, where there were attempts to discredit them.”
“And after all is said and done,” she added, “women were finally believed.”
Inside the courtroom, the judge thanked the jurors for their service, calling it an “extraordinarily difficult case.”
Prosecutors asked the judge that Cosby be sent to jail immediately and his bail revoked because he has a private plane and could pose a flight risk. The request prompted the first real outburst from Cosby in the course of the trial. According to the Associated Press, Cosby shouted: “He doesn’t have a plane, you asshole,” referring to a prosecutor. “I’m sick of him!”
The judge ultimately declined the prosecution’s request, citing Cosby’s age and poor health. Cosby is out on a $1 million bond and was forced to surrender his passport. Cosby will be sentenced at a later date, though his lawyers vowed to appeal.
“We don’t believe Mr. Cosby is guilty of anything,” lead defense attorney Tom Mesereau said.
Bill Cosby leaving to chorus of catcalls. “Rapist!” GUILTY on all three counts. pic.twitter.com/oFqR3AWBYz— Manuel Roig-Franzia (@RoigFranzia) April 26, 2018
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, speaking with emotion during his press conference, credited the courage of Andrea Constand and the women who testified in the Cosby trial. “Nineteen [women] were willing to stand up with us in this prosecution,” Steele said. “We are humbled by the courage all of them showed. And we can’t help but applaud and celebrate the five witnesses that had a chance to face Bill Cosby in this case to tell the jury, to tell all of you, what he did to them.”
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 sometimes brutal cross-examination, presented a powerful case. Their stories echoed Constand’s own account 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 dredging up their past misbehaviors. Cosby’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 ended 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.
It started, in many ways, the surge to come. Sexual harassment accusations eventually ousted Fox News chair Roger Ailes in the summer of 2016; Bill O’Reilly followed from Fox News in April 2017. The New York Times published its exposé on Weinstein in October 2017. Famous actresses and household names accused a powerful Hollywood director of sexual assault, and the silence was shattered. Survivors, women and men, spoke out with allegations — about Matt Lauer, about Kevin Spacey, about Roy Moore, about Al Franken.
Still, for all the concerns that the movement denies men “due process,” most of the #MeToo claims of harassment have been litigated in the media — not in court.
But what unfolded during Cosby’s trial is hard to separate from the national debate happening outside it. During jury deliberations, the first question asked of the judge was the legal definition of consent.
The judge said he could not answer it, and that the jurors already had the legal definition of the crime.
That left the jury to decide its definition, and it felt like a microcosm of how the country has grappled with allegations that poured out during #MeToo.
Ultimately, the jury found Constand could not, or did not, give consent to Cosby. The guilty verdict is a hopeful sign for sexual assault survivors — and a warning for those that perpetrate it — that the broader social reckoning is translating to the criminal justice system.