As Bill Cosby walks free, is America’s ‘justice’ system broken?
Bill Cosby and his supporters called it “justice for black America”. But for many, it seemed instead like confirmation that celebrities, regardless of race, exist in a world above the law. That symbolic conviction of “America’s dad” seemed all for naught as he walked free on Wednesday, less than three years into what might have been a decade behind bars, following his 2018 conviction on three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
On leaving his Pennsylvania prison Cosby clearly sought to frame himself as a victim of prejudice. He tweeted a picture of him as a younger man, eyes closed, head bowed, and raising his fist in a black power salute.
“This is what we have been fighting for, this is justice for black America,” his spokesman Andrew Wyatt declared, adding that Cosby had been “treated unfairly by the judicial system and some bad officers”. It was all too much for Kristen Gibbons Feden, the black female prosecutor in the case, who said she felt “sick to my stomach and disgusted”. Andrea Constand, whose accusations led to Cosby’s only original convictions – in spite of dozens of women coming forward to accuse him of abuse – described the news as “not only disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault”. Indeed justice seemed the loser of the day; yet another reminder that – with enough wealth behind the accused, legal loopholes in the US system to secure their freedom can always be found.
It was all reminiscent of an approach that helped O.J. Simpson to an acquittal in his murder trial in 1995, when the court of public opinion split along racial lines.
More than two decades later, Cosby’s conviction seemed like a landmark moment: at last, it seemed, a turning point had been reached in holding famous and powerful men to account. But Cosby, who always maintained his innocence, did as a cohort of other US celebrities pursued in the courts have done – assembling an expensive crack team of lawyers who would find a way to free him.
Ultimately, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court decided on a 4-3 decision, he had been unfairly prosecuted in the first place.
A previous district attorney in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Bruce Castor, had promised Cosby he would not be charged over accusations made by Constand, who had accused the now 83-year-old of drugging and assaulting her at his home in 2004. Following Castor’s promise, Cosby agreed to be questioned under oath in the civil case she brought against him. In his deposition he described offering Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with; the civil case was settled for $3.4 million.
Kevin Steele, a successor to Castor, later used Cosby’s deposition in the civil case as a basis to criminally charge him, which led to his conviction. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided it had been “an affront to fundamental fairness” to use Cosby’s comments in the civil case against him.
Wesley Oliver, a Pennsylvania law professor who followed the case, believes the decision was unprecedented in America.
Steele, the district attorney, was unremitting: “Cosby was found guilty by a jury and now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime. We still believe that no one is above the law – including those who are rich, famous and powerful.”
But, despite Steele’s protestations, Cosby joined a long list of rich and famous people who have found their way out of the US legal system.
In 1993, Michael Jackson settled abuse allegations out of court for $23m. Then, in 2005, he was tried on charges including molesting a minor. After a four-month trial he was acquitted of all 14 charges.
In 2008, after being accused of abusing dozens of under-age girls, Jeffrey Epstein secured a secret non-prosecution agreement, in which he admitted soliciting and procuring a minor for prostitution. He avoided a possible life sentence and served 13 months in a work-release scheme. More than a decade later, a US Justice Department report concluded the prosecutor in Florida had exercised “poor judgment” in agreeing to the deal.
Epstein also paid out millions of dollars to settle civil claims which were not pursued in the criminal courts, prior to being found dead in his prison cell in 2019.
The legal team of Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul serving a 23-year sentence in New York for rape and sexual assault, was quick to issue a statement following the Cosby decision.
“This decision reaffirms our confidence that the Appellate Division in New York will reach the similarly correct decision in Harvey Weinstein’s appeal,” they said.
For many wearied by poor conviction rates for women who accuse men of sexual assault, yet more insult has been added to injury. Questions remain, too, over how loopholes are seemingly perennially found, no matter the case, for the cream of Hollywood. The answer does not seem to lie in the constitution, but simply in the bank accounts of those involved. In the land of the free, the scales of justice have again been thrown off balance.
That such a high-profile celebrity had served time at all came as a surprise to many, including Therese Serignese, 64, who made allegations of sexual abuse against Cosby. Her reaction to news of his release said it all: “That’s as good as it gets in America.”