The Bill Cosby case — which heads back to trial on Monday — is a litmus test in many ways. Perhaps the most pertinent is that it may wind up being one of the only court cases involving the men whose alleged sexual misconduct was recently exposed, helping lead to the #MeToo movement.
While famous men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and many others have seen their careers upended after various accusations, most haven’t faced criminal charges (Weinstein is being investigated). Cosby has a lot on the line. As his own lawyers put it during jury selection, he faces the potential of spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Many other stakeholders have a lot riding on the case. Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, for example, has spent decades filing lawsuits, holding press conferences and helping to propose legislation. All of it was part of a quest to promote awareness of sexual assault and protect victims’ rights. Seemingly overnight, because of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Allred’s work has gotten somewhat easier. Dozens of women have accused powerful men publicly of sexual misconduct since last fall, and they haven’t been shunned. But as the retrial of Cosby begins, with three of her clients ready to testify as previous accusers, Allred still wonders if the movement has gone far enough, past the court of public opinion and into the court of law.
“In this era of #MeToo, more women are being believed,” she told Deadline. “But the real question is how many women does it take for one woman to be believed over the denial of one rich, powerful, famous man? And we don’t know the answer to that question yet.”
Cosby is plenty cognizant of #MeToo and #TimesUp. In January, he made a trip to a Philadelphia Italian restaurant with friends and publicists and invited several reporters to join. He told them he was ready for this upcoming trial and added to a female journalist, “Please don’t put me on #MeToo.”
Despite the defendant’s confidence, legal experts and activists see a different atmosphere. Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York, said this is “some bad timing” for Cosby.
“The awareness that sexual assault and sexual abuse happen so routinely is finally accepted and a reality,” Ossorio said. “And all of a sudden it makes this case no longer extraordinary. It’s been rendered ordinary. I think that will have a bearing.”
Like last year, the trial will come down to the jurors’ belief as to what transpired between Cosby and Andrea Constand in 2004. Constand, who met Cosby while working for the Temple University women’s basketball team, alleges he gave her three blue pills and digitally penetrated her and forced her to touch his penis while she was unable to consent.
Cosby’s attorneys, led by Hollywood stalwart Tom Mesereau, routinely brought up their concerns about #MeToo in pretrial hearings. They succeeded in getting a motion approved to ban visitors from wearing any pins, caps or other apparel supporting sexual assault victims inside the Montgomery County Courthouse.
But the cultural shift could still infiltrate the courtroom. Barbara Ashcroft, a law professor at Temple and a former Montgomery County assistant district attorney who was in the office when Cosby was initially investigated in 2005, has seen it in Judge Steven O’Neill’s rulings. For the original trial, he allowed one previous Cosby accuser to testify. This time, five women are allowed to testify.
“Has the law changed or have the facts changed? I don’t think so,” Ashcroft said. “I think what has changed is the momentum and the energy and the climate of the #MeToo movement.”
During the first two days of jury selection, O’Neill asked 240 prospective jurors whether they’d heard of #MeToo. Every potential juror except for two said they had. Jurors weren’t selected unless they made clear in individual interviews they would separate what they’d heard about #MeToo from what they hear in the courtroom regarding Cosby.
Some potential jurors couldn’t help themselves from sharing their thoughts about the movement. After saying he could be fair and impartial, a 40-something white man with facial hair said, “I think a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon.” An elderly white woman said, “I’m not happy with that culture, but…”
O’Neill cut her off. He said, “You’re aware they are not the subject of this specific case.” Neither potential juror was selected.
The jury features seven men and five women, two African-Americans and 10 whites, the same composition as the first trial. Four of the 12 jurors are young, seemingly in their 20s and 30s. The defense used three out of its six peremptory challenges to dismiss potential young jurors, and it’s possible they feared their association with the #MeToo culture.
“There’s a decent chance younger people will think this is a big, old story about our society and hear the Cosby facts in light of that,” said Dan Filler, dean of Philadelphia’s Drexel University Kline School of Law.
Nightly vigils and other forms of protests are planned on the steps of the courthouse throughout the trial. Bird Milliken, a Philadelphia social worker and artist, was one of the few demonstrators last year. She believes the 50-plus Cosby accusers weren’t given enough credibility and support but deserve credit for the increased conversations around sexual assault and sexual harassment that have been happening post-Weinstein.
“I think these women kind of broke the ground,” said Milliken, whose Instagram account was cited in the defense’s motion to ban apparel supporting sexual assault victims. “They were the ones who kind of ate dirt and laid a foundation for other women to come forward and to speak up.”
For the dozens of Cosby accusers and their growing number of supporters a fitting new chapter to #MeToo would feature the image of the comedian being led away in handcuffs. A celebrity accused of sexual assault would not only see his career falter but would actually face the ultimate punishment of prison. That outcome could further galvanize victims of sexual misconduct.
Of course, prison sentences are doled out only in the courtroom. And Allred knows there are no guarantees inside there.
“When it gets down to an actual court case with a specific woman against a specific celebrity,” she said, “it is difficult to say what will happen.”