Norristown (United States) (AFP) – Disgraced television icon Bill Cosby was convicted Thursday of sexual assault by a US jury — losing a years-long legal battle that was made tougher at retrial as the first celebrity trial of the #MeToo era.
The frail and 80-year-old Cosby — once beloved as “America’s Dad” — could now spend the rest of his life behind bars when he is sentenced for drugging and molesting Andrea Constand at his Philadelphia mansion in January 2004.
Constand was in the packed courtroom in Norristown, just outside Philadelphia, as the verdict was read out to stifled sobs in the gallery.
A criminal conviction and possible prison term is a devastating final chapter in the career of the once towering figure in late 20th century American popular culture, the first black actor to grace primetime US television, who hit the big time after growing up as the son of a maid.
The jury, which deliberated for more than 14 hours over two days, found him guilty on all three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Cosby’s first trial ended in June last year with a hung jury.
The three counts constituted penetration without Constand’s consent, which took place both while she was unconscious and after she had been drugged. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years.
The pioneering African American actor and entertainer, adored by millions for his seminal role on “The Cosby Show,” sat in silence as the jury foreperson read out the verdict.
But after the jury was led out, the Emmy winner — dogged for years by allegations of similar assaults made by dozens of women — erupted in an expletive-laden tirade as prosecutors argued he was a flight risk.
The verdict was a vindication for the prosecution, after Cosby’s first trial ended with the sequestered jurors hopelessly deadlocked after 52 hours of deliberations.
It also ended a winning streak for Los Angeles lawyer Tom Mesereau, who leapt to fame for getting Michael Jackson acquitted of child molestation in 2005, but who ultimately failed to deliver for Cosby.
A case with no physical evidence, the trial essentially boiled down to he-said, she-said, hinging on how credible the jury found 45-year-old Constand, a former basketball player turned massage therapist.
– ‘Could not fight him off’ –
The Canadian woman said she went to Cosby’s home to discuss her impending resignation as director of operations for women’s basketball at Temple University, where he was on the board of trustees.
The actor offered her three blue pills to “help take the edge off,” which she took believing they were a natural remedy.
“I trusted him,” Constand said. But within minutes, she developed double vision, started slurring her words and lost consciousness.
When she came to, she said Cosby was penetrating her vagina with his fingers, groping her breasts and making her masturbate him.
“I was limp and I could not fight him off,” she said.
When Constand first reported the assault, the district attorney at the time initially refused to press charges.
Prosecutors reopened the case in 2015, nearly a decade after she signed a $3.4 million settlement with Cosby in 2006, claiming that new evidence had come to light just as other accusers came forward.
Around 60 women, many of them onetime aspiring actresses and models, came forward publicly to brand him a calculating, serial predator who plied victims with sedatives and alcohol to bed them over four decades.
Crucial to the second trial was Judge Steven O’Neill’s decision to let five other women testify how Cosby had preyed on them in a similar manner, to demonstrate “common plan, scheme or design.”
– ‘Inability to consent’ –
Prosecutors said Cosby used his fame to gain the trust of unsuspecting women, time and time again, and deliberately drugged Constand so that she would be unable to resist his advances.
“This case is about trust, betrayal and the inability to consent,” Kristen Feden told jurors, tearing into the defense’s “vicious” and “filthy” character assassination attempts against Cosby’s accusers.
She turned on its head the defense claim that Constand was a con artist, who pursued a grieving father mourning his son’s murder and old enough to be her grandfather for a big payout.
“The perpetrator of that con?” shouted Feden in dramatic and emotional closing remarks. “That man!” she shouted, pointing at Cosby.
Mesereau and former federal prosecutor Kathleen Bliss sought an aggressive defense that portrayed Constand as a money-grabbing opportunist, who lied to extricate herself from financial worries.
“You’re dealing with a pathological liar,” said Mesereau, branding the 2006 settlement “one of the biggest highway robberies of all time.”
But ultimately, the panel of five women and seven men were unconvinced.
Hanging over the entire trial was the cultural watershed of the #MeToo movement, which since last October has seen a litany of powerful men from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey lose their careers.
Experts had suggested that changing attitudes towards sexual assault could make jurors more inclined to believe female victims.