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Why Bill Cosby criminal charges could be a teachable moment

The fact that Bill Cosby will be arraigned on Wednesday is a stunning development in a story that first gained national traction just over a year ago.

For decades, Bill Cosby provided Americans with a heartwarming, albeit fictional portrayal of manhood at its finest. Now the real Bill Cosby will have to prove himself innocent or stand up as a testament to the power of public shaming. The criminal charges filed against the comedian for alleged sexual misconduct are a vindication for his many accusers and could become a teachable moment for the nation at large. 

RELATED: Bill Cosby criminally charged in 2004 sex-assault case, freed on $1M bail

On Wednesday, the district attorney's office in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, announced that it had re-opened a case within the state's 12-year statute of limitations for sex crimes against Cosby. A former Temple University employee alleged in 2005 that Cosby, a Temple alum, drugged and "digitally" penetrated her against her will at his home just outside of Philadelphia, according to Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele. Dozens of women have come forward alleging sexual misconduct by Cosby spanning several decades, including acts of drugging and/or assault. Cosby has previously denied the accusations and has never been charged with a crime — until now.

It's a stunning development in a story that first gained national traction just over a year ago, when a fellow comedian — Hannibal Buress — referenced past allegations against Cosby in a stand-up routine that went viral. Today, with Cosby facing a potential day in court over his alleged actions, the public will be forced to confront the reality that the 78-year-old may be both a cultural icon and a sexual predator in the eyes of the law.

Meanwhile, his dozens of accusers, some of whom have given candid interviews and graced magazine cover stories describing their alleged ordeals — may finally have an opportunity to get the justice they insist they deserve. Their allegations of drugging and sexual abuse stretch back as far as the 1960s, and yet they hadn't permeated the public consciousness prior to the social media age. During the decades prior, Cosby enjoyed one of the most storied careers in American entertainment. His starring role in the groundbreaking sitcom "The Cosby Show" made him into a beloved public figure in the 1980s, when he was affectionately hailed as "America's Dad." When allegations against him resurfaced, he was fiercely defended by prominent allies and fans.

Some of his most ardent support has come from the African-American community, with whom Cosby has had a contentious relationship in recent years. About 11 years ago, Cosby made a series of polarizing public appearances where he took black youths to task for their attitudes and dress — statements that were applauded by conservatives but derided by others who felt the comedian's "pull up your pants" rhetoric was tone deaf. Still, his success as a crossover performer and philanthropist, who promoted positive images of African-American families, endeared him to generations of black audiences.

Now, that reputation has arguably collapsed.

Daily Beast editor-at-large Goldie Taylor, who penned a controversial cover story on the Cosby legacy for Ebony magazine in November, and is a rape survivor herself, called the news of criminal charges against the comedian "heartbreaking."

"For so many, especially in the black community, the accusations remain too painful to talk about and, for others, too difficult to believe," Taylor told MSNBC on Wednesday. While she believes Cosby's accuser is a "courageous woman," she adds that "Bill Cosby deserves due process. He deserves to have his day in court." 

When his alleged victims stepped forward with increasing frequency this past year, Cosby's persona as a harmless father figure was largely shattered in the court of public opinion. Perhaps the most damaging blow was the revelation of 2005 deposition testimony in July, where Cosby in his own words admitted to giving women Quaaludes as a prelude to sexual encounters. While he maintained that he never gave someone a drug without their knowledge, that admission opened up a fresh round of scrutiny of Cosby.

Even President Obama weighed in. "If you give a woman, or a man for that matter, without his or her knowledge a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that’s rape,” Obama said in July, when asked whether the White House would consider revoking Cosby's Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he was awarded by former President George W. Bush in 2002.

In the case currently in question, prosecutors say Cosby was initially a mentor to the accuser, but then began making unwanted sexual advances towards her, which led to an alleged assault. Assistant District Attorney Steele said the woman, who worked for Temple's women's basketball program at the time of the alleged incident, has expressed a willingness to cooperate with the case. Should she appear in public, this accuser could provide a powerful counterpoint to Cosby, who publicly has barely addressed the allegations against him, although he consistently denied them through his legal representatives, and will be forced to appear before cameras for the first time as a criminal suspect.

Cosby's attorneys have been striking back recently against his accusers. Earlier this month, Cosby sued several of his accusers for defamation, arguing that they have caused him “severe emotional distress from public ridicule, shame and contempt." These new developments could further complicate that very public legal battle. 

“We have been saying from the beginning, we welcome an opportunity to present their case in a courthouse,” Joe Cammarata, a lawyer who represents the women in the suit told MSNBC's legal analyst Ari Melber at the time. “It’s a forum where truth can be tried, and the rules apply fully and fairly to both sides." That case was expected to be heard in early 2017, but now they may have their day in court much earlier, due to the new criminal charges against Cosby. Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents more than 25 of Cosby's accusers said that for many of her clients "seeing him criminally charged and having to face a trial is the best Christmas present they have ever received."

Even if the case against Cosby falters, it's fair to say that he has experienced a precipitous downfall in his once peerless public esteem. Besides being the butt of jokes on late night comedy, Cosby has seen planned projects with Netflix and NBCUniversal, MSNBC's parent company, scrapped in the wake of mounting allegations, and his iconic sitcom has been pulled from re-runs on cable networks. His nationwide tour earlier this year was riddled with cancellations and protests and several institutions — including Temple — have cut ties with the comedian.

And this story, as unsavory as it is, can provide a valuable lesson about rape culture. The Cosby case could force important conversations about consent and the reporting of sex crimes into the forefront of national news, and the allegations have already raised questions about state laws regarding the statutes of limitations on sex crimes cases.