New York (AFP) – The conviction of cultural icon turned national pariah Bill Cosby on sexual assault charges was a bittersweet victory for advocates of women making similar charges against powerful men in Hollywood, the media and elsewhere.
And those advocates say they hope it will lead to more such convictions amid the groundswell of allegations that have come forward since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke late last year, unleashing the #MeToo movement.
“I think now there is tremendous awareness of how these crimes have been covered up and papered over for years,” US District Attorney Kevin Steele said after the jury convicted the comedian on Thursday.
“And all women that are out there standing up and telling their truth, I, we, support them and encourage them to keep it up,” said Steele.
“And I hope now everybody recognizes that here you are going to be treated with dignity and respect through the process,” he added.
Cosby’s first trial ended last June with a hung jury, hopelessly deadlocked after 52 hours of deliberations.
The 80-year-old’s conviction in the first celebrity courtroom battle of the #MeToo era “is a notice to sexual predators everywhere,” said the National Organization for Women.
Actress Rose McGowan — who was among the first to go public with accusations against Weinstein, a movie mogul whose career is now in tatters — tweeted: “His victims can now exhale.”
“Thank you, judge and jury. Thank you society for waking up,” she added.
– Charges rare –
The flood of reactions reflects the exceptional nature of Cosby’s conviction.
In recent years, many powerful men in America have been accused of sexual assault.
But few have actually been charged, even if the number of probes has soared with the #MeToo watershed.
Weinstein’s alleged transgressions are perhaps the most flagrant.
He has been accused of abuses ranging from harassment to rape by more than 100 women since October, prompting probes in Los Angeles, New York and London. But he has not yet been charged.
Weinstein’s lawyer, Ben Brafman, has said his client never engaged in non-consensual sex. But pressure on prosecutors in New York is growing, and they have beefed up their team of investigators.
Other high-profile men have been accused of sexual misconduct, including the actor Kevin Spacey, Metropolitan Opera director James Levine, and, in France, prominent Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. Most have been forced to resign or humiliated out of public life.
But apart from Ramadan, none of these men have been charged so far.
Cases are hard to carry forward. This is because of a lack of physical evidence of sexual assault, as in Cosby’s case, and court proceedings that depend largely on contradictory testimony from defendant and accuser.
Also, in many of the US cases, the statutes of limitation have expired, meaning the alleged crimes occurred too long ago to prosecute.
On Friday, many commentators highlighted that allowing five other Cosby accusers to testify in the case brought by Andrea Constand, inevitably tipped the scales.
“While the #MeToo movement might have opened the floodgates of sordid stories and reveals how ubiquitous the experience of such abuses of power are, the outcome of Cosby’s trial underscores the sad truth that the voice of a single woman too often isn’t enough,” The Philadelphia Inquirer said in an editorial.
– ‘Hesitation’ to tell story still unavoidable –
Although some abuse victims might be encouraged by the Cosby verdict and the #MeToo reckoning, “there is still going to be hesitation for the victim to come forward because there is a feeling sometimes of shame,” said Julie Rendelman, a New York lawyer who has worked on several of these cases.
“Going forward with these types of cases is not a piece of cake for the prosecution. Once an accusation is made, law enforcement has an obligation to investigate those accusations to determine if in fact a crime has been committed.”
Indeed, tough prison sentences in these types of cases is still rare.
The 80-year-old Cosby could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. His lawyer has pledged to appeal, so the judge could leave him free on bail in the meantime.