Almost three years after the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby first entered the mainstream, the once-beloved comedian is finally getting his day in court.
After a contentious jury selection process during which defense attorneys accused prosecutors of deliberately excluding black jurors who might be sympathetic to Cosby, both sides ultimately agreed on 12 jurors: seven men and five women, including two who are African-American.
The trial began June 5. Cosby arrived for the first day of proceedings with Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played his youngest daughter Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show, by his side. Here’s what you need to know:
The Allegations Against Cosby
Cosby’s criminal trial is for three felony counts of “aggravated indecent assault” for his alleged molestation of former Temple University basketball staffer Andrea Constand at his home in 2004. Although at least 60 women have accused Cosby of some form of sexual assault, Constand’s case is likely to be the only one to result in a criminal trial, since the vast majority of allegations are much older than the 12-year the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania. If convicted, Cosby faces a 20 year prison sentence for each of the three counts.
Constand’s story is similar to many of the dozens of other allegations against Cosby. She considered him a trusted friend and mentor, called him “Mr. Cosby,” and relied on him for career help. During a visit to his home, Cosby allegedly gave her three blue pills to drink with a glass of wine, Constand said in a police report filed in 2005, roughly a year after the incident. She became dizzy and nauseated and her legs began to feel “like jelly,” she told police, and she said that Cosby penetrated her with his fingers as she lay helpless on the couch. She said she later woke up with her “bra askew” and couldn’t remember what else happened. Constand had gone to police in 2005, a year after the incident, but the district attorney at that time did not press charges.
Cosby’s Response to the Charges
In a deposition given for Constandt’s civil lawsuit against him in 2005 and 2006, Cosby testified that the encounter was consensual. “She doesn’t walk out with an attitude of huff, because I think I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things, whatever you want to call them,” he said in the deposition, which was first reported by the New York Times. He also testified to obtaining quaaludes in order to offer to women, “the same as a person would say have a drink.” He told police that Constand never told him to stop, and was conscious during the encounter. Prosecutors will likely argue that Constand would not have consented to sexual contact with Cosby because she is gay and was in a relationship with a woman at the time.
Can the Trial be Fair?
The trial will take place in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, but jury selection took place in Allegheny County because Cosby’s defense team argued that the potential jury pool in Montgomery County would have been too saturated with publicity about the case. Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, who is leading the prosecution, ran his 2015 campaign for D.A. partly on a promise to prosecute Cosby for Constand’s alleged assault. Steele won the election and charged Cosby in December of 2015, shortly before the statue of limitations would have expired.
“You never know in a case like this how much a jury may be influenced by what they’ve read and what they’ve heard,” says David Rudovsky, a senior fellow at University of Pennsylvania law school who teaches criminal law and procedure. “That’s a problem for Cosby: there’s been so much publicity, can you really get twelve fair jurors who will put it out of their mind?”
What About the Other Accusers?
At least one other accuser is expected to testify in court to establish a pattern of behavior, says attorney Gloria Allred, who represents 33 of Cosby’s accusers including the one who will testify (she has not been publicly named). Prosecutors originally wanted 13 of Cosby’s other accusers to testify, but the judge allowed them to pick only one, to avoid prejudicing the jury. Still, Allred says that many of the other accusers are closely following the case. “They are happy that she’s going to have her day in court, even though they couldn’t,” she says.
Several of the Cosby accusers been pushing for states to extend or remove the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases, with Allred’s help. Due in part to that pressure, in 2016 Colorado and Nevada extended their statute of limitations on sexual crimes to 20 years, and California abolished it altogether.
Cosby, who is 79 years old and now completely blind, has said that he doesn’t plan to testify at his own trial. That means the jury’s decision will boil down to whether they believe Constand, and Cosby’s lawyers plan to do everything they can to attack her credibility, from questioning her motives to attacking her subsequent contact with Cosby. The testimony other accuser will also help decide the case.
“Ultimately it’s the credibility of these two women that will be tested,” says Rudovsky. “If they believe them, he’ll be convicted, if there’s reasonable doubt about whether they’re telling the truth, they won’t.”