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Comedian Bill Cosby convicted of sexual assault in retrial

  • Author: Jeremy Roebuck, Laura McCrystal, The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Updated: April 26, 2018
  • Published April 26, 2018

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby leaves court after a day of deliberations in his sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

NORRISTOWN, Pa. — A Montgomery County jury has found Bill Cosby guilty of the only criminal charges to emerge from a career-ending scandal fueled by dozens of women who accused the entertainer once known as "America's Dad" of sexual assault.

After about 13 hours of deliberation, the panel of seven men and five women Thursday convicted him of drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee who said she had seen Cosby as a father figure and mentor until the early 2004 night that he accosted her at his Cheltenham Township home.

The 80-year-old entertainer could face up to 10 years in prison. As the jury decision was announced, Cosby offered little visible reaction, but gazed down at the defense table, looking sullen; his spokesman leaned forward, his head in his hands.

Constand sat in the front row, looking ahead as the guilty verdict on three counts of aggravated indecent assault was announced. Some of Cosby's other accusers in the packed courtroom let out audible sighs of relief; a few began to loudly sob and were removed.

"This has been an extraordinarily difficult case," Judge Steven T. O'Neill told the jurors, Montgomery County residents who had been sequestered most of the month, as he thanked them for their service. "You have sacrificed much but you have sacrificed it in service to this country, this county and this town. And that is important."

The verdict delivered the first celebrity conviction of the #MeToo era in a case that in many ways stood at its vanguard and shone a spotlight on the role sexual entitlement, a scandal-hungry media and Hollywood's casting couch culture played in the ruin of a comedy icon.

But in the end, it was the 13-year-old account of one of Cosby's very first accusers that now threatens to send him to prison, potentially for the rest of his life.

"Andrea Constand came here to Norristown for justice and that's what 12 jurors from Montgomery County provided her," Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said at a news conference. "Today we're finally in a place to say that justice was done."

O'Neill is expected to sentence Cosby at a later date — typically within 90 days. After the verdict, Steele had immediately argued that Cosby's bail should be revoked and he be jailed. He argued that the entertainer has a plane and could flee.

"This is somebody who has unlimited wealth," the prosecutor contended argued. "I don't think any amount of bail can assure his presence under these circumstances."

Cosby spit back, yelling, almost as if to himself: "He doesn't have a plane, you asshole."

The judge rejected the prosecutor's request, keeping Cosby's bail conditions the same and ordering him to remain at his Cheltenham home unless approved to go elsewhere. The entertainer also must undergo assessment to determine if he must register as a violent sexual predator.

As court was adjourned, a group of advisers and supporters ran to Cosby's side. He said nothing as he was led from the room on the arm of his spokesman, Andrew Wyatt.

Later, Cosby's lead lawyer, Tom Mesereau, vowed an appeal. The fight "is not over," he said.

Outside the Norristown courthouse, helicopters buzzed overhead and a crowd massed, including many Cosby critics who celebrated his conviction.

"I feel like my faith in humanity has been restored," said Lili Bernard, one of Cosby's accusers, as she fought tears on the steps on the courthouse. As Cosby climbed into a waiting SUV, shouts erupted from the crowd: "Women's lives matter!" "Free Bill!" "Black power!"

The verdict represented vindication for Constand, a 45-year-old Canadian massage therapist. More than a decade ago, the comedian had paid her $3.4 million — a confidential payout — to settle a civil suit based on the same assault claims. But that was after her story had been rebuffed in 2005 by prosecutors who doubted she could stand up to courtroom scrutiny. And then last year another jury was unable to unanimously agree about her claims.

It also delivered a victory to Steele, who through two trials has come under attack from Cosby, his wife and a defense team that accused him of corruptly targeting an innocent man to feed his own political ambitions.

Still, Steele vowed to press on after Cosby's first trial in June resulted in a hung jury and mistrial. He returned to court April 9 with a case that was in many ways stronger than before.

This time, jurors heard from a parade of five other Cosby accusers — including supermodel and reality TV show staple Janice Dickinson — each of whom in days of emotional testimony alleged, like Constand, that Cosby approached them as mentors, knocked them out with pills and then took advantage of them.

"He's nothing like the image he plays on TV," Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden said in her closing argument to jurors Tuesday. "He utilized that image and cloaked it around himself so he could gain the trust of young, unsuspecting women to sexually assault them and strip away their ability to say no."

Cosby, too, had revamped his defense strategy between the two trials. His new team of lawyers — led by attorneys Tom Mesereau, Kathleen Bliss and Becky S. James — came to court determined this time to hold nothing back.

During her own blistering closing argument, Bliss lobbed scathing attacks each of the accusers that testified, dismissing them all as either "failed starlets," liars or sexually promiscuous gold-diggers.

"This case isn't about justice," she said. "It's about money, press conferences, TV shows, salacious coverage and ratings. Sex sells."

But the defense reserved their most aggressive assault for the woman whose testimony ultimately mattered most — Constand.

In the first trial, Cosby's lawyers painted her 2004 sexual encounter with the entertainer as romantic and consensual — a liaison she only later decided was an assault.

This time, however, Mesereau and his colleagues painted Constand's entire relationship with their client as part of a long con — one that eventually secured the settlement from Cosby in 2006 and one she laid out in detail to a Temple colleague who told jurors that Constand once told her that she could fabricate sexual assault claims against a celebrity in order to make money.

"She knew Mr. Cosby was extremely wealthy," Mesereau told jurors at the start of the trial. "She knew exactly what she was doing, and, ladies and gentlemen, she pulled it off."

Still, over two days of testimony earlier this month, Constand stuck to the story she has been telling for more than a decade — that in Cosby had invited her to his Cheltenham mansion, gave her three blue pills and then assaulted her when she was paralyzed and powerless to resist.

At the time, she was working as for the women's basketball program at Temple University, where Cosby was the most famous alumnus and a powerful member of the board of trustees. She testified that after viewing Cosby as a mentor and father figure it took her more than a year to decide to report the incident to police.

The fact that Constand's allegations landed Cosby in a courtroom at all came after an improbable series of events that started in a Philadelphia comedy club a decade after Constand's attack.

In a stinging rebuke that later went viral, comedian Hannibal Burress lambasted Cosby over Constand's longstanding but then-largely forgotten allegations.

His 2014 routine opened floodgates that resulted in a two-year, onslaught of accusations from more than 60 other women who credited the renewed scrutiny for their own decisions to come forward — many for the first time — and allege they, too, had been drugged and molested by the entertainer.

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