Bill Cosby’s second trial in the criminal case against him for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting Canadian professional basketball player Andrea Constand is set to begin next week and the social climate could not be more different from the last time. Cosby’s is the first major celebrity sexual assault trial since the Me Too movement, and you better believe there are going to be some changes this time around.
A few years ago, when women began coming forward against America’s dad, Bill Cosby, it was our culture’s first little taste of Me Too. Almost 60 women accused the comedian of sexual assault, some involving date rape drugs. The parallels between the way Cosby wielded his reputation and influence to keep dozens of women quiet about his abuses and the way Harvey Weinstein treated his victims are uncanny. But for some reason our society just needed a few more years to truly condemn that kind of behaviour.
That’s one of the reasons why, in June of last year, Bill Cosby avoided a guilty verdict in the criminal Constand case. After 52 hours of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked — with 10 jurors voting to convict and two holding out — and the judge ordered a mistrial. Prosecutors at the time vowed to retry the case within the next four months. It’s been almost 10, but in that time, society has been busy purging abusers from its ranks.
Most of Cosby’s other accusers were unable to take legal action against their alleged abuser because of the statute of limitations in various states (preventing cases from being tried after a certain amount of time has passed since the crime). Constand was different in that she filed and won a civil suit against Cosby in 2005 for the drugging and assault she described happening in 2004. Cosby’s deposition in that case was sealed until 2015 when a judge ruled it was relevant.
In the deposition, Cosby admitted to obtaining Quaaludes for the purposes of giving them to at least one woman he wanted to have sex with. That newly-revealed admission led to criminal charges in Pennsylvania and last summer’s trial.
What impact will the post-Me Too culture have on the trial?
The jury is not meant to bring any biases into the courtroom with them, but recent events and the publicity of this case may make that almost impossible. According to The New York Times, potential jurors are being asked if they have read about or heard of the Me Too movement, though it is still unclear what role that plays in the selection. Of the 120 potential jurors interviewed Monday, all but one answered in the affirmative.
Our current cultural moment could influence this trial in any number of ways, but one component experts are particularly interested in is how it affects people’s perceptions and willingness to believe victims. Have we learned as a society that women are credible? Are we more inclined to trust women who come forward now? Especially when that woman spoke out against her publically-adored accuser before there was a hashtag for it?
Literacy around the subject of sexual harassment and assault has greatly improved in the past several months, including a more universal understanding of how power dynamics in sexual relationships work. Both Weinstein and Cosby abused people for whom they were mentors, adding more power to their high-profile reputations.
“Since Cosby’s first go-round, all courtroom participants – jurors, attorneys, judge – have been immersed in an intensive course on sexual violation,” former-prosecutor Deborah Tuerkheimer told The Times, “The ways in which we evaluate the credibility of survivors has also shifted in important ways: from a default to doubt, to a greater willingness to believe.
“And we have been newly schooled in the importance of consent. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out in the courtroom.”
Cosby’s lawyers have expressed a concern that the recent downfalls of powerful men accused of sexual assault will lead jurors to group Cosby into that same category. The judge in the case is allowing five additional women who claim they were victimized by Cosby to testify during the proceedings as well.
The trial is set to begin April 9.