Friday 24 November 2017

The Cosby woe: America's Dad is in the dock

After years of rumour and accusation, the Bill Cosby trial finally got under way last week and the case looks set to be about the women on both sides of the courtroom

Bill Cosby entering court last week
Bill Cosby entering court last week
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

As he shuffled into court on Monday, leaning heavily on a cane and a woman who played his daughter on television, Bill Cosby appeared every bit the dignified patriarch that his defence team would portray him to be.

Though legally blind, the 79-year-old television icon flinched at the wall of camera flashes that recorded his every faltering step. Inside the courtroom Cosby leaned forward and listened closely as his defence lawyer gestured dramatically towards him during the opening statement. "When you look at him, what do you see?" Brian McMonagle asked the jury. "Be the juror you would want if it was your grandfather, or your son or you."

He did not need to specifically invoke the idea of Cosby as a father, perhaps because it goes without saying. The comedian, for much of his career, was known, quite simply, as 'America's Dad'. He was the bumbling, cuddly head of the Huxtable household - the first black family to have a major sitcom based solely around them - and a strikingly wholesome counterpoint to the more controversial African American stars of rap and sport.

Cosby's was a tale of rags to riches and the triumph of talent. The poor son of a US marine was a sensation from the moment he stepped on stage in 1963, telling charming, winking stories about his childhood. In avoiding the topic of race he was for a mass white audience the palatable face of black America.

He toured like a rock star, made numerous appearances on The Tonight Show and became one of the first ever stand-ups to break into sitcoms. And boy, did he break. For five of the eight years it ran, the Cosby was the most-watched show in America and, like Barack Obama a few decades later, Cosby's image of black respectability and affluence would change the country and the world. Naturally perhaps, the accusations against the comedian seemed like a painful desecration of the nostalgia for that time. One American writer, Leonard Pitts Junior, pointedly asked: "So what's next? Will it turn out that Mother Teresa was a pornographer?"

This horror explains partly why Cosby's trial has taken so long to come to court. Perhaps ironically for a comedian, his real problems began three years ago when a (then) 31-year-old black comic called Hannibal Buress made open reference to allegations of rape against Cosby during a stand-up comedy performance. A clip from the show went viral and set off an avalanche of claims with over 60 women now having come forward to publicly accuse the star of having sexually assaulted them.

The allegations span a huge timeline of more than three decades, but most of them were allegedly committed outside of the statute of limitations for the prosecution of such crimes. Defamation and counter defamation cases have been traded between the actor and a smaller group of women.

Another woman, Judy Huth, alleges Cosby raped her at The Playboy Mansion when she was just 15 years old - that civil case is ongoing. Many of the women have pursued Cosby through the civil courts and some have obtained settlements - including Andrea Constand, the woman whose accusations now form the basis for the trial (Cosby unsuccessfully applied to have her be compelled to return her settlement money).

In 2002 Constand was the 29-year-old director of operations for a university women's basketball team in Philadelphia when she was introduced to Cosby by a mutual friend. From the moment he saw Constand, Cosby had "a romantic interest" in her, he testified in an affidavit for the 2005 civil lawsuit she filed against him.

Much of the evidence in the ongoing criminal trial will relate back to what the parties said about a night they spent together at Cosby's home in 2004.

Neither person denies the meeting, nor that Cosby gave Constand several pills and a glass of wine. But aside from that their accounts differ dramatically, and the jury's interpretation of what happened that night will ultimately decide if Cosby is guilty of sexual assault or not.

According to Cosby's account, he gave Constand the pills to help her relax because she was stressed from her job. They were three blue pills, which he said was the popular over-the-counter allergy medicine Benadryl. He said they talked for a while about her job, then moved to a sofa, where the two began to kiss. Cosby vehemently insists the sex was consensual, and that afterwards he let Constand sleep at his home, on the couch, for a couple hours. Then he made her tea and gave her a muffin, he said, and she didn't mention anything negative about what they'd done, according to his testimony.

Constand says she took the pills, which he described to her as a "herbal medication" which would "take the edge off", according to her own written deposition. Soon after she had taken them she felt as though her body was paralysed, she says, although she was still conscious. She could not speak or move while Cosby took off most of her clothes and assaulted her, and she says she never gave consent, nor could she have been in a state to give it (her lawyers have also said she is gay, so she would not have given consent).

She agrees that she did not voice her upset after and says she left "dazed" without saying a word. She did not go to a doctor and the lack of physical evidence has been one of the problems for the prosecution.

Similarly to Irish law, there are complicated rules in American courts as to the admissibility of what we call Similar Fact Evidence and they sometimes call The Rule Against Character Evidence.

This basically means that when you are charged with a crime you are entitled to be tried only on the evidence pertaining to that crime, without the prosecution being able to try to show that you have a tendency to behave in a certain way. (Otherwise a convicted criminal, for instance, might never be able to get a fair trial on new charges against them).

There are exceptions to the rules around Similar Fact Evidence, however. Evidence of past wrongdoing can be admitted in court if it can be shown that there is a highly distinctive or signature modus operandi to the crimes alleged.

Cosby's use of drugs during sexual encounters with women is not disputed - he wrote about it in his 1991 autobiography and spoke in an interview with Larry King about using an "aphrodisiac" called Spanish Fly.

The prosecution, as well as some legal scholars, have argued that the evidence of the ever growing army of Cosby's accusers cannot be discounted. The trial judge has decided, however, that all but one of the other accusations against him will remain inadmissible.

Besides Constand, only one other accuser will be allowed to testify at trial. That woman, Kelly Johnson, says Cosby assaulted her in 1996 after he invited her to his home and drugged her. Johnson, who was working for Cosby's agent at the time, testified that Cosby would often call her "in a fatherly, favourite uncle, Dr Huxtable type of way". She described going to Cosby's house at his invitation not long before the alleged assault. She said they acted out a scene in a script in which a tipsy woman hugs and kisses a man, which made her feel uncomfortable.

"Like Andrea, at a certain point in their friendship, he invited her over for lunch to discuss her career plans. Like Andrea, he gave her a pill. Like Andrea, she became incapacitated. Like Andrea, when she lost consciousness the defendant grabbed her hand, placed it on his penis and masturbated himself," the prosecutor told jurors.

Despite his legendary facility for charming audiences and the inevitable sympathy that a blind 79-year-old would engender, Cosby himself will not take the stand. As with the William Kennedy Smith case 26 years ago, the courtroom drama will primarily centre on the defence's attacks on the credibility of the accusers.

Brian McMonagle, the ferocious Irish-American attorney who defended the Archbishop of Philadelphia in a case related to the paedophile priest scandal in the city, has already pointed out that a previous prosecutor declined to press charges against Cosby in the Corstand case.

In a bruising cross-examination of Johnson, during which he raised his voice repeatedly, McMonagle accused her of changing her story from a 1996 deposition on the same matter. Johnston tearfully responded that she had been "bawling" during that original statement and added that she hadn't wanted to say "anything about what happened".

While Cosby will be the silent heart of the trial, the focus throughout the build-up to it has been on the high profile women who surrounded him through his life. Supermodels Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson - the first black woman ever to appear on the cover of Vogue - have both alleged that Cosby drugged and raped them.

Dickinson told Entertainment Tonight that Cosby drugged her over dinner and she never pressed charges because she "was afraid of being labelled a whore or a slut and trying to sleep my way to the top of a career that never took place".

Johnston says that during a meeting with Cosby to discuss a role on The Cosby Show he offered her a cappuccino, after which, "my head became woozy, my speech became slurred, and the room began to spin non-stop". She alleges he assaulted and drugged her - although not that he raped her.

While McMonagle has been dogged, perhaps Cosby's most powerful defence has come from his erstwhile television family. As the stories multiplied Malcolm-Jamal Warner, his TV son, spoke out on how "great" the actor had always been to him. Cosby's TV daughter, Keisha Knight Pulliam, said, "No one was there except for the two people to know exactly what happened. All I can speak to is the man that I know and I love."

Cosby's memorably genial TV wife, Phylicia Rashad, went much further, saying: "I think it's orchestrated. I don't know why or who's doing it, but it's the legacy. And it's a legacy that is so important to the culture."

There has been intense interest in the opinion of Lisa Bonet, the sole Cosby actress who was known to have a history of mild conflict with the titular star. Bonet, who was married to the rock star Lenny Kravitz, has refused to comment, but, in an interview with The Guardian her daughter, Zoe, characterised her mother's reaction to the allegations as "disgusted and concerned".

Cosby's wife of 53 years, Camille, was notably absent in the courtroom this past week. She is reported to be "livid and humiliated" by his actions, although a "family source" told The New York Post, "not one time did she abandon him".

There have already been claims that Cosby will not get a fair trial before a majority white jury, which has almost inevitably been exposed to the steady cascade of accusations against him.

The case is not a whodunit but rather a he said-she said dispute, and the themes of consent, race and the power of celebrity seem set to dominate the coverage. Even the defence has acknowledged that a great many people have already made up their minds. Numerous institutions, colleges, universities, businesses and TV networks have severed ties with Cosby as a result of the allegations and the tarnishing of his legacy has been compared to the disgrace of OJ Simpson.

The actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg has already said that, for all intents and purposes, the ongoing case will be decided in the court of public opinion. One thing seems certain: whether he is acquitted or not, it seems unlikely that the formerly pristine reputation of 'America's Dad' will ever quite recover.

Raven Symone

(Cosby role: Olivia Kendall)

The baby of The Cosby Show graduated to a number of teen dramas and has starred in the hit series Empire as well as guest hosting on the afternoon chat show The View. “I was NOT taken advantage of by Mr Cosby when I was on The Cosby Show! I was practically a baby on that show and this is truly a disgusting rumour that I want no part of!” she wrote on Twitter in 2014.

Keshia Knight Pulliam

(Cosby role: Rudy Huxtable)

Alas, the great reality TV dumpster swallowed little Rudy whole. Pulliam has appeared on Fear Factor and The Weakest Link. She also participated in Celebrity Mole 2: Yucatan and 2013’s Splash, but little in the way of scripted drama. She was at Bill Cosby’s arm on the first day of his trial.

Lisa Bonet

(Cosby role: Denise Huxtable)

Shortly after The Cosby Show ended, Bonet broke up with her rocker husband Lenny Kravitz (with whom she had daughter Zoe). In 2005, she married Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa (with whom she had daughter, Lola). After quitting Cosby Show spin-off A Different World she appeared alongside Will Smith in Enemy Of The State. However her post-Cosby career also featured many straight-to-video releases.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner

(Cosby role: Theodore ‘Theo’ Huxtable)

Since The Cosby Show ended, Warner has dabbled in music videos, released two albums and worked on his performance poetry. Like Rashad, The Cosby Show didn’t propel him to greater things. Blink and you will have missed his more recent credits, which have included Community and Reed Between the Lines.

Phylicia Rashad

(Cosby role: Clair Hanks Huxtable)

The Cosbys’s magnetic and wonderfully knowing matriarch has stayed in the television business, making appearances in the comedy-drama Psych and the medical procedural Do No Harm. She has also carved out a stage career, but never again hit the heights of her Cosby fame.

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