Watching Cosby Fall
Posted April 27, 2018 5:35 p.m. EDT
Andrea Constand and Bill Cosby have similar accounts of what transpired between them. It was agreed that they met through Temple University, where he was on the board of trustees and she was director of operations for the basketball team, and that the two became friends. It was agreed that a sexual interaction occurred between them on a night in early 2004 at his home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. But Constand said she had been sexually assaulted that night — given pills and wine that left her incapacitated and incapable of consenting to sex — and Cosby and his lawyers said the interaction was consensual.
On Thursday, Cosby was found guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Constand. The jury returned the verdict on the second day of its deliberations; the first trial against Cosby for the same crimes, which took place last summer, ended with a deadlocked jury after six days.
To many, Cosby is a star in the pantheon of powerful sexual abusers, proof of the rampant inescapability of male sexual violence. In this narrative he is an African-American corollary to Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of assault or harassment by more than 30 women. Weinstein and Cosby have been the chief villains of the social reckoning of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Now, one of them will be sentenced.
Another narrative, quietly visible at the trial in Norristown, Pennsylvania, is of Cosby as a victim of conspiracy.
In this telling, Cosby’s conviction is a testament to the enduring power of white supremacy. His conviction is seen as proof that no matter how high a black man ascends, no matter how successful or principled he is, there will always be people, likely in the criminal justice system, lurking and waiting for the chance to bring him low.
It was Joan Didion who wrote, in recounting the case of the Central Park Five, in which five black teenagers were wrongfully charged with the sexual assault of a white female jogger, that “crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.” There are several high concepts, several overarching themes, to the Cosby trial.
The grand narrative always depends on who is doing the telling.
On one of the early days of the trial, Mustafa Majeed was protesting outside the courthouse. Sixty years old, soigné and towering, Majeed had a manner about him that is best described as “gentlemanly.” He was one of very few black people at the courthouse. “You here with us?” he asked, by way of greeting. He was eager to chat, hunching his tall frame to hear me better.
It was early in the day so the court was dark and mostly empty except for police officers and members of the news media, identifiable by their sensible footwear and open laptops. Majeed said that in the 1980s and ‘90s, he had made a name for himself disrupting New York City movie sets that he thought were lacking in black and Latino workers. That day, he had traveled to the courtroom in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to advocate on Cosby’s behalf.
Majeed said he believed Cosby was being “railroaded.” He handed me a flyer addressed to the “Brothers and Sisters of Montgomery County” that read, in bold, sans serif print “ACQUIT BILL COSBY.” He regarded my hesitation to agree as proof of a youthful, millennial naiveté.
I asked Majeed how he remained so convinced of Cosby’s innocence. He flashed a wide grin. “Take a look around!” he said, gesturing to a crowd of almost entirely white members of the news media who were charged with covering the trial. (I saw two additional black journalists arrive later.)
According to Majeed, the mostly white media was partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump. So how can they be trusted, he asked, to cover the trial of a black man?
The district attorney who prosecuted the case against Cosby was another case in point. In 2015, when Kevin Steele ran for the position, he made prosecuting Cosby a distinct focus of his campaign. In an October television ad, Steele touted his “98 percent conviction rate” and “tough sentences for sexual predators.” Those who voted for Bruce Castor, Steele’s opponent, would be supporting “a former DA who refused to prosecute Bill Cosby,” the ad said. (Castor had declined to charge Cosby in 2005 when he was the district attorney, citing “insufficient credible and admissible evidence.”) The optics of a white district attorney running on a platform built on his desire to convict a black male celebrity are irksome. To Majeed, they’re damning. He remembers that one of Steele’s political coups was the reinstatement of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related offenses. Cosby’s trial, he said, was tangled up in Steele’s political livelihood.
In his opening statements, Steele repeatedly used the word “trust.” It was trust that Constand had placed in Cosby, Steele said, and trust that Cosby had violated. Trust was something Majeed thought he couldn’t afford to give the prosecution.
The defense, on the other hand, painted Cosby’s accusers as money-grubbing and hungry for fame. Their cross-examinations, most days, felt like a string of humiliations. When Janice Dickinson took the stand, irreverent and comic, the defense questioned the paternity of her children. When Janice Baker-Kinney spoke, she was prodded to remember the exact date she came to terms with her alcoholism. Constand’s civil suit, the $3.38 million she had received as a settlement from Cosby in 2005, was presented as proof of her unassailable greed.
One day, after an especially dispiriting round of cross-examination by Kathleen Bliss, I went to lunch with Gloria Allred. The fiery attorney represents 33 of Cosby’s accusers. Allred is petite, with chestnut hair streaked blonde, and I found her striking in her knit suit accessorized with legal pad and pen. “It’s how things are, how they’ve always been,” she said of the style of cross-examination, what felt like a commitment to the demoralization of the victims. She was not concerned. “It’s not over, not by far,” she said. “Bill Cosby is going to spend the rest of his life either in court or in jail for what he’s done to these women.”
Because Andrea Constand was never the only one. The allegations of abuse against Bill Cosby spanned five decades, from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Cosby has been accused of having sexually assaulted women throughout the majority of his life. Most of Cosby’s accusers could no longer bring charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
But for this retrial, additional women were allowed to testify against Cosby — an unusual victory for the prosecution — in order to prove a history of “prior bad acts.” In addition to Constand, Baker-Kinney, Dickinson, Lise-Lotte Lublin, Chelan Lasha and Heidi Thomas were representative of the scores of women who have said Cosby sexually assaulted them. Their stories were further bolstered by a 2005 deposition, unsealed in 2015, in which Cosby had admitted to giving Constand pills and to acquiring quaaludes.
Cosby is an anomaly in the #MeToo movement, now that he is facing sentencing for his actions. Some famous men — Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Bill O’Reilly among them — have lost their jobs. They have suffered professional consequences — or, it seems likely, some setbacks for their actions.
Cosby’s conviction represents the possibility that legal ramifications could become a real possibility, or even a cultural norm — not just a fleeting, surprising victory. There’s a dark poeticism to the fact that it was Cosby’s own moralizing that was partially responsible for his prosecution. His proselytizing, the contempt he had directed at working class black people, unwed mothers and their criminal sons, had made his own moral fiber a matter of public concern.
He was convicted near Philadelphia, where he grew up, and could serve his term in a Philadelphia prison. It’s a reckoning that hits close to home.