More than a dozen unrelated women claim that Bill Cosby raped them. Some of them have come out publicly, using their own names and granting interviews. Earlier this week, Barbara Bowman wrote for The Washington Post, reminding us that she has said publicly since 2004 that Mr. Cosby raped her in the 1980s, when she was just 17 years old and a struggling young actress.
Bowman’s story is consistent with other women who have said that Mr. Cosby pretended to give them benign cold or herbal medication, but instead heavily sedated and then sexually assaulted them. Joan Tarshis says Mr. Cosby twice drugged and raped her in 1969, when she was 19 years old. Andrea Constant sued Mr. Cosby for rape in 2004, and promised to include testimony in her case from thirteen other unnamed women who she claimed were also sexually assaulted by Mr. Cosby. The case settled on confidential terms in 2006, without a single witness being called, as far as I can tell.
Mr. Cosby has never been criminally indicted for sexual assault, much less convicted. He denies the allegations. What are we to make of this?
As a litigator who has handled many cases of rape, battery and child sexual abuse for decades, here’s my assessment:
1. The more accusations, the more likely the charges are true
The more accusations from different accusers, the more likely the charges are true, especially when the facts are so similar.
No doubt there is strength in numbers. Against a beloved, wealthy and powerful celebrity like Cosby, few would dare come forward. That thirteen have is extraordinary. It seems highly improbable that that many women would lie, especially when most of them stand to gain nothing from it – certainly no money. Just the misery of having the media hound them and pore over the details of their lives, trying to discredit them.
The fact that statutes of limitations have run out on Ms. Bowman’s criminal and civil cases means she has nothing to gain from speaking out now. She is not promoting a book or film. She initially came forward a decade ago to support other women. Other Cosby accusers seem to be acting out of that same motive: solidarity. All of these facts have an aura of credibility.
2. We can never know for sure
And yet: without the justice system putting witnesses on the stand and scrutinizing the evidence, we can never know for sure if the charges are true.
Our criminal justice system has its flaws, which I often speak and write about. But it also has a few shining hallmarks like the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the rule that all witnesses be subjected to cross-examination.
Most people can speak fairly convincingly when they are allowed to talk in a narrative, unspooling their story in their own way to a friendly questioner, like a media interviewer or their own lawyer in a consultation. But when confronted under oath by a skilled litigator and presented with evidence that may be inconsistent with their story, allegations sometimes fall apart.
This happens in American courtrooms every day in every kind of case. But it has never happened in any rape case against Bill Cosby. None of his accusers have been cross-examined, and neither has he. Although under ingratiatingly friendly questions from an NPR interviewer a few days ago, Mr. Cosby’s silence on the rape questions may speak volumes.
Without the crucible of cross-examination, we cannot get at the truth of what went on behind closed doors, where there were apparently no other witnesses nor any hard evidence collected from the scenes.
3. For victims of sexual assault, our system is broken
When it comes to rape, our system is broken. We are told not to trust it, and we don’t.
What galls me is Ms. Bowman’s recounting of how she told her agent and even a lawyer that she had been drugged and raped by Mr. Cosby, and she was shushed and told not to report it. As usual, powerful forces circled their wagons against a powerful man, and his alleged victim was swept away.
Anyone who tells a girl not to report a rape is a co-conspirator to that predator’s next crime. Sexual predators tend to repeat their crimes, emboldened by their lack of accountability. Victims should be supported through every step of the process, not discouraged from going to the police.
I have a different approach to rape cases we handle in my law firm. We empower our clients, require them to have family, psychotherapists and friends as their support system, and walk them through what they can expect from the system. I believe if they can survive rape, they can definitely survive talking about it. Many discover that the experience of standing up to their rapist, while scary, is a transformative, healthy experience. They literally stand taller, speak more forcefully, and come into their own.
Every sexual assault victim deserves police who take her seriously, a prosecutor who gathers evidence and supports her, and lawyers who treat her with respect. Yet time after time I hear of just the opposite.
In New Orleans, police have ignored rape cases for years, failing to take rape reports, failing to gather evidence, generally just shrugging off rape complaints as unworthy of their time. Elsewhere rape kits sit on evidence shelves, unprocessed, as rapists go free and victims suffer. No wonder many women do not report sexual assault at all. And yet we must, to protect other women.
If Mr. Cosby’s accusers are telling the truth, they deserved accountability years ago. Our failure to support rape victims leaves them decades later having failed to obtain a criminal conviction. Speaking out to the media is now the only option they have left. And it’s a poor substitute for justice.
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