On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated Cosby’s 2018 conviction for three counts of aggravated indecent assault against his former mentee, Andrea Constand. The court held that Cosby, who has been publicly accused of rape, assault or sexual misconduct by approximately 60 women, was denied a fair trial in 2018, due to a nonprosecution agreement that was made by a former district attorney in 2005, when Constand first came forward with her allegations. Cosby celebrated the release as vindication. He has never admitted he did anything wrong. But there’s innocence in the eyes of the law, and then there’s innocence.
Cosby’s fate does not determine the success of #MeToo.
“We hold that, when a prosecutor makes an unconditional promise of non-prosecution, and when the defendant relies upon that guarantee to the detriment of his constitutional right not to testify,” the court’s decision reads, “the principle of fundamental fairness that undergirds due process of law in our criminal justice system demands that the promise be enforced.”
This news is gutting, and not just for Constand, who went through a grueling legal process over the course of more than a decade — her alleged assault occurred in 2004 — but also for Cosby’s dozens of other accusers, not to mention survivors and #MeToo advocates around the world, who held up the Cosby case as a win for the global movement. Processing Wednesday’s events requires us to hold many truths at once: I believe the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had legal reason to come to the conclusion that it did; I believe every person should be afforded due process; the criminal justice system is fallible and broken; I believe Bill Cosby is a sexual predator; I believe victims of sexual assault are routinely failed by the justice system and the culture as a whole.
I spent much of 2014 reporting on Cosby’s accusers, whose allegations spanned four decades. During those months I thought a lot about the brazenness with which women say he abused them, and the routine the women alleged consistently and clearly: slipping something into a drink or offering up an innocuous painkiller, followed by Cosby allegedly doing what he wanted to the body in front of him. I thought a lot about how so many of these women held these secret stories tightly for decades, assuming they probably wouldn’t be believed. (“I just wanted someone to hear me,” Cosby accuser Therese Serignese, who says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1976, told me when she finally came forward in 2014.)
So when I first read about Cosby’s imminent release, a visceral thrum of rage beat against my chest.
In a nation where so many are denied due process, Cosby’s release on a technicality serves to highlight once again how the rich and famous get special treatment.
When I first read about Cosby’s imminent release, a visceral thrum of rage beat against my chest.
I wondered why Cosby was the one whose failure to receive due process was elevated to the courts in a nation where so many are denied it. I wondered whether his release would empower public figures who are invested in not believing survivors. I wondered what this case would do to victims of assault who are unsure if their stories are worth telling. I wondered what the news meant for any of us who had felt a sense of relief knowing Cosby had been punished.
My fear and anger — and the fear and anger expressed by others on Twitter and in group chats and in one-on-one conversations — was less about the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision and more about what Cosby’s 2018 conviction represented at the time it occurred: a powerful man facing rare and concrete consequences for alleged serial sexual violence.
When the guilty verdict first came down, it felt like a minor miracle — and an indication that #MeToo had moved the needle. Constand was a woman who was believed, even when Cosby’s defense team invoked well-worn stereotypes about women who accuse men of abuse, painting her as a “pathological liar” and a “con artist” out for “money, money and lots more money.”
Everyone knew that a guilty verdict would not bring the systemic change that activists actually craved. For his part, Cosby has always denied all wrongdoing, claiming his contact with Constand was consensual. Even so, the Constand case served as a metaphorical tourniquet for the wounds left behind by gender-based sexual violence. Some of the bleeding might stop, at least for a little while.
“I feel like I’m dreaming. Can you pinch me?” Lili Bernard, who says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1992 when she was a guest star on “The Cosby Show,” told MSNBC the day Cosby was convicted. “This is a victory ... not just for the victim in the case, Andrea Constand, not just for the 62 of us publicly known survivors of Bill Cosby’s drug-facilitated sexual crimes against women, but it’s also a victory for all sexual assault survivors, female and male. It’s a victory for womanhood.
Bernard’s exhausted, teary relief speaks to how many women had attached their own fates to Constand’s. She was the one who was able to bring charges against Cosby. Her allegations had not yet passed the state’s statute of limitations, something that prevented many others from pursuing legal action.
So now that Cosby is out, what should we do?
Remember that Cosby’s release from prison is not akin to his exoneration. As journalist and professor Marc Lamont Hill stressed on Twitter on Wednesday, all it means is that Cosby “was incarcerated within a criminal legal system that has as little regard for its own rules and procedures as Cosby does” for his alleged victims.
Remember that movements do not rest on the shoulders of individuals. Symbolic heroes and villains may serve as flash points for mobilization, but they are always inherently limited. Cosby’s fate does not determine the success of #MeToo.
Most importantly, center the survivors: Barbara Bowman. Lachele Covington. Andrea Constand. Shawn Brown. Tamara Green. Beth Ferrier. Joan Tarshis. Linda Joy Traitz. Janice Dickinson. Therese Serignese. Carla Ferrigno. Louisa Moritz. Renita Chaney Hill. Michelle Hurd. Angela Leslie. Kristina Ruehli. Victoria Valentino. Joyce Emmons. Sarita Butterfield. Jewel Allison. Jennifer Thompson. Donna Motsinger. Judy Huth. Lisa Jones. Helen Hayes. Chelan Lasha. P.J. Masten. Beverly Johnson. Chloe Goins. Katherine McKee. Linda Kirkpatrick. Rebecca Lynn Neal. Cindra Ladd. Helen Gumpel. Linda Brown. Lise-Lotte Lublin. Heidi Thomas. Margie Shapiro. Sunni Welles. Janice Baker-Kinney. Marcella Tate. Autumn Burns. Lili Bernard. Sammie Mays. Colleen Hughes. Linda Ridgeway Whitedeer. Eden Tirl. Charlotte Fox. Patricia Leary Steuer. Lisa Christie. Pamela Abeyta. Sharon Van Ert. Donna Barrett. Lisa. Kacey. Elizabeth. Sandy. Dottye.
Listen to them. Uplift them. Believe them.