For Black America there was no greater entertainment icon during the late 20th century than Bill Cosby. But on Wednesday, the legendary comedian faced the unthinkable: He was arraigned on second-degree felony aggravated indecent assault charges dating back to 2004. Released on $1 million bail pending trial, he is now looking at a possible maximum sentence of 10 years in prison plus fines.
Montgomery County, Pa. district attorney Kevin R. Steele announced the charges, which stem from the allegations of a former Temple University employee Andrea Constand, who claims she was drugged and sexually violated by Cosby in his home.
Constand is one of more than 50 women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault over the years. In most of these allegations, the statute of limitations has run out to bar authorities from pursuing any criminal charges. Not so in this case, since the statute does not run until January 2016.
The question being asked right now (particularly among African Americans who find themselves torn by the possibility of a favorite TV dad facing prison) is what does this mean for the actor? Could Cosby, 78, actually go to jail? Will he have to face all or many of his accusers at trial? Or will he make a plea deal and avoid the impending media circus that a trial would bring?
To answer these questions, we must first look at a timeline of the allegations and the possible criminal case against Cosby:
- 2005: Constand first filed a criminal complaint against Cosby, but the district attorney in office at the time decided not to file a charge.
- 2006: Constand sued Cosby in civil court, and the lawsuit was later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.
- 2015: Constand’s case against Cosby was reopened this past summer after an "unsealed testimony" was released, in which Cosby admitted to obtaining quaaludes to give to women he planned to sleep with and admitted having what he called a consensual "sexual moment" with Constand. These seeming "admissions" on the part of Cosby are what urged prosecutors to file a charge before the case's statute of limitations ran out next month.
The Cosby case has stunned us all and what happens next will be pinnacle to how he will spend the remainder of his days. He returns to court Jan. 14, for a preliminary hearing where a judge will determine if there is just cause to proceed to trial, according to the criminal complaint. Should the case actually go to trial, it will be up to the prosecution to prove its case against Cosby. Witnesses who allege they were also assaulted by the entertainer would be called to show "pattern and practice" that Cosby engaged in similar acts with women other than Constand. The challenge, however, will come with the Rules of Evidence and whether or not the court would allow these other alleged victims to testify to Cosby's "prior bad acts.” The exception, of course, to the rule, is for the district attorney to make the case that these acts are so "strikingly similar" that they bolster Constand’s credibility and prove her to be telling the truth.
The standard in a criminal case is much higher than in civil cases. The prosecution must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" as opposed to a "preponderance or more likely than not" standard. Cosby's attorneys have indicated that they would rather go to trial and mount a defense, versus looking for a plea deal that could keep their client out of court and jail. My guess is that this case will indeed go to trial, and that the DA's case hinges on Constand’s ability to get testimony from the other alleged Cosby victims. Without it, there is no physical evidence (no rape kit, no DNA, etc, no semen samples), or other evidence after 10 years that will likely convict Cosby. It then becomes a classic case of "he said, she said," making it anybody's guess who will win that argument at trial.
Sophia A. Nelson, Esq. is an attorney and award winning journalist. Follow her on Twitter @iamsophianelson