Justice was served in the Bill Cosby sexual assault retrial
On April 25, the first day of the retrial of sexual assault charges made against Bill Cosby began in the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Though more than 50 women have made allegations against Cosby, this particular case centers on Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee who said she lost consciousness after Cosby drugged and assaulted her in January 2004.
But Constand was not the first to take the stand; prosecutor Kristen Feden instead called an expert witness named Barbara Ziv. Ziv, a forensic psychiatrist — who spoke in general terms and said she had not reviewed the Cosby case — was called on to testify about “rape myths” or widely believed misconceptions about the behavior and actions of sexual assault survivors, such as expecting survivors to immediately file police reports and to cut off contact with those who attack them. “Most common knowledge about sexual assault is wrong,” Ziv affirmed during her testimony. Ziv explained that while people generally believe that sexual assault is committed by strangers, 85 percent of victims know their attackers. She cited U.S. government studies that affirmed that fewer than 30 percent of sexual crimes are reported to the police. She testified that survivors are often fuzzy about the details of their assaults, and therefore frequently wait long periods before reporting their crimes. They also typically maintain contact with their attackers as a means of making sense of what happened to them, Ziv noted. She also advised jurors that despite widespread assumptions, sexual assault victims don’t do things to make themselves vulnerable to attack, like wear certain clothes or behave a certain “provocative” way.
The prosecution’s decision to call on Ziv as the first witness certainly represents a significant tactical shift from Cosby’s first trial, wherein the first witness called, Heidi Thomas, was a survivor herself. It’s clear the prosecution has learned they must educate the jury about widespread rape myths in our culture and debunk those myths before the survivors are called to share their stories.
This is particularly relevant when considering Constand’s testimony. As Constand explained on the stand, at the time of her assault, she regarded Cosby as a mentor. Therefore she trusted Cosby when he gave her pills that he claimed were herbal medication. She recounted feeling weak and dizzy, and claimed Cosby groped her breasts and proceeded to sexually assault her. She didn’t alert the authorities until a year after the incident, she said, because she had moved away to Canada and had begun to have nightmares.
This is where Cosby’s defense team had formerly begun to attack Constand’s story. While waiting to alert authorities, as Ziv testified, is completely normal behaviour for sexual assault survivors, Cosby’s defense team framed her decision to wait as evidence that Constand wasn’t actually assaulted. They also pointed to Constand’s initial statements to police, which were fraught with inconsistencies large and small: For example, while she initially told a police investigator that she was assaulted after eating dinner with Cosby and a group of Philadelphia educators at a Chinese restaurant in March 2004, she later changed her account, saying the assault happened two months earlier on an evening when she arrived at Cosby’s house with an empty stomach and he insisted she drink an old-vintage wine. Again, such inconsistencies are not uncommon for sexual assault victims still sorting through their trauma. Yet even James Reape, a Montgomery County, Pa., detective, testified that those inconsistencies “fell by the wayside” when he read deposition testimony in which Cosby admitted to giving Constand Benadryl, which the comedian uses as a sleep aid, and having sexual contact with her.
Despite the prosecution’s best efforts, however, while on the witness stand Constand found herself answering questions based on rape myths and misconceptions all the same. For example, Constand testified that the comedian gave her gifts, including three cashmere sweaters.
“Did you make a point to wear the cashmere sweaters that Mr. Cosby gave you when you saw him?” Mesereau, the defense attorney, asked.
Constand stammered that she hadn’t, but the defense’s implication was clear: Constand’s decision to wear the sweaters Cosby gave her could have been interpreted by Cosby as a sign that the much younger woman was receptive to his sexual advances.
Perhaps the myth Ziv attempted to discredit that was nevertheless evoked by the defense was the defense’s suggestion that Constand is lying because she maintained contact with Cosby after the alleged assault. In one of Constand’s interviews with the police, she said her contact with Cosby post-assault was “rare and brief,” but on the witness stand, she said that they spoke dozens of times on the phone post-assault. She asserted that the calls, including two she placed on Valentine’s Day, were related to the Temple women’s basketball team.
Constand also was forced to acknowledge that she’d gone to Cosby’s home after the dinner at the Chinese restaurant to confront him. “I wanted to know what pills he gave me,” she said at the trial. But Cosby wouldn’t tell her, she said, so therefore she left, still wondering what exactly had happened — and why.
The first day of the retrial resulted in a 10.5-hour jury deliberation, but failed to result in a verdict. But on the second, Cosby was found guilty on all three counts of sexual assault. While the judge has not yet set a date to sentence Cosby, each of the counts is punishable by up to ten years in state prison.
“After all is said and done,” said Gloria Allred, lawyer to many of Cosby’s accusers, “women were finally believed.”
More articles by Category: Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Criminal justice, Rape, Sexualized violence