What should happen to Bill Cosby now that more than a dozen women have accused him of sexual assault? In a better world—or a world where justice was more satisfying—these women’s stories would be investigated by the police and prosecuted in court. In that world, the allegations, if true, would lead to convictions, and Cosby would be headed to prison on sexual assault charges. “Actually, he’s a serial rapist,” Joan Tarshis, one of the latest victims to tell her story, said on CNN.
Tarshis’ story begins like most of the others: “He made me a drink and very shortly afterward I passed out. I woke up very groggily with him removing my underwear.” It was 1969, and she was an aspiring comedian. Cosby told her he wanted to work on a sketch with her and invited her to his bungalow. Then came the drink, the groggy moment, and, according to Tarshis, forced oral sex.
Tarshis, like the others, is defensive about not having spoken out for so many years. She worried no one would believe her, because he’s the great Bill Cosby, “the all-American dad.” But it’s hard not to believe her now, because her story sounds so similar to all the others. Here is Barbara Bowman, another alleged victim telling almost the exact same story. She was a 19-year-old aspiring actress when she met Cosby. He “talked incessantly about trust issues,” she said, and made her believe she had to open up to him. Then in an Atlantic City hotel room came the drugs, the wooziness, the “screaming, yelling, scratching.”
So why isn’t Cosby in handcuffs? Andrea Constand was a young Temple University employee when she went to Cosby for career advice in 2004. She tells the same story of pills and grogginess. Unlike the others, though, she took her case to Bruce Castor, then a Pennsylvania district attorney who declined to press charges and today explained why. “I didn’t say that he didn’t commit the crime. What I said was there was insufficient admissible and reliable evidence upon which to base a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s ‘prosecutors speak’ for ‘I think he did it but there's just not enough here to prosecute.’” Castor said he had every incentive to go forward—it would have been a career-making, front-page news story for him, after all. But after a year, “you lose the ability to test for blood or intoxicating agents.” He says he thought Cosby probably did “something inappropriate,” but “thinking that and being able to prove it are two different things.”
These decades-old cases are virtually impossible to prosecute. Not only does the physical evidence no longer exist, but most states have statutes of limitation on sexual assault cases. We can debate about whether there should be statutes of limitation on sexual assault, given that women often feel too ashamed to come forward right away. But for the moment, that’s the law. So where does that leave us?
In the house of public shame. Yes, the court of public opinion is thoroughly sloppy, as Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate after Dylan Farrow’s New York Times essay exploded the Internet. “There are no rules of evidence, no burdens of proof, no cross-examinations, and no standards of admissibility.” But in this case, unlike either the Woody Allen case or the R. Kelly case, there are now five women who have spoken to major media outlets, under their real names, telling a very similar story. Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby, which was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2006. In that case, her lawyer had lined up 13 supporting witnesses, all apparently with their own pills-and-grogginess stories. At the time, Constand’s case did not make a dent in Cosby’s reputation. But now that we know what we know, or perhaps now that we know it at a time of heightened awareness about sexual assault, a quiet settlement and a financial hit seem insufficient punishment given the scale of the crime. So Netflix, don't air that Cosby post-Thanksgiving special, even though you have already paid for and shot it; NBC, cancel that Cosby sitcom. And if that doesn’t happen, then shame on anyone who watches them.