Norristown (United States) (AFP) – US television icon Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual assault Thursday in the first celebrity courtroom battle of the #MeToo era — a combative retrial that capped his fall from grace and offered vindication to dozens of women who accused him of abuses.
The frail, 80-year-old Cosby — once beloved as “America’s Dad” — risks spending 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. Cosby’s attorney quickly pledged to appeal.
A criminal conviction and possible prison term is a devastating prospect for 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.
Cosby’s first trial ended last June with a hung jury, hopelessly deadlocked after 52 hours of deliberations.
But on Thursday, a new sequestered jury, which deliberated for more than 14 hours over two days, found him guilty on all three counts of aggravated indecent assault, carried out while Constand was unconscious.
Each count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years. Judge Steven O’Neill is expected to hand down a sentence in the next 60 to 90 days.
The pioneering African American actor and entertainer, adored by millions for his defining 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 against dozens of women — erupted in an expletive-laden tirade as prosecutors argued he was a flight risk.
– ‘ Women believed’ –
“He doesn’t have a plane you asshole!” yelled Cosby, referring to himself in the third person, after the district attorney argued he could flee anywhere in the world by private jet to gasps in court.
The verdict was a vindication for the prosecution, with the district attorney who presided over the conviction saying the real Cosby had been unmasked after he “spent decades preying on women.”
“I think now there is tremendous awareness of how these crimes have been covered up and papered over for years,” said Steele.
“We hope that this verdict sends a strong message,” that victims of such crimes can come forward and be heard, he added.
Other women who claimed to have been assaulted by the megastar reacted with triumph. One was so emotional, she broke down in sobs and had to be escorted out of the court room.
“We are so happy that finally we can say, women are believed, and not only on #MeToo, but in a court of law where they were under oath, where they testified truthfully,” said Gloria Allred, the high-profile lawyer who represents more than two dozen Cosby accusers.
The verdict 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.
“We are very, very disappointed,” said Mesereau, vowing to appeal. “We don’t think Mr. Cosby is guilty of anything and the fight is not over.” He had portrayed Constand as a money-grabbing con artist.
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.
Experts had suggested that the cultural watershed of the #MeToo movement, which since last October has disgraced a litany of powerful men from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey, could make jurors more inclined to believe female victims.
– ‘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. But within minutes, she 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 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 the judge’s decision to let five other women testify how Cosby had preyed on them in a similar manner.
Prosecutors savaged “vicious” and “filthy” attempts by the defense to character assassinate those accusers, but ultimately, the panel of five women and seven men were unconvinced.