Bill Cosby was back in court today—and there, he learned that he’d be returning much more frequently. In a preliminary hearing, a judge ruled that Montgomery County’s criminal case against Bill Cosby will move forward to trial. The case concerns Andrea Constand, Bill Cosby’s first public accuser, who alleges that in an early 2004 visit to his house in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her. If convicted, Cosby could face up to 10 years in prison. But considering the number of accusations that have come out since Constand, the implications of the case reach far beyond an immediate punishment.
According to Constand, a former women’s basketball coach at Temple University, she considered Cosby (who was 37 years her senior) a “sincere friend” and mentor. He often introduced her to educational colleagues and provided her with life advice. She visited him often, and on the day in question when she came over to discuss concerns regarding her career, he presented her with blue pills he called “three friends to make [her] relax.” He apparently assured her that they were “herbal,” but later revelations suggest that they were either Quaaludes or Benadryl. She proceeded to lose strength in her legs and failed to keep her eyes open. Despite her impaired condition, at some point she became aware that he was touching her breasts and penetrating her vagina with his fingers, but she was unable to stop him. She woke up several hours later with her bra undone and moved above her breasts. Cosby, dressed in a robe and standing at the bottom of the staircase, handed her a blueberry muffin and she left the residence.
A year later, she reported his conduct to the police, who launched an investigation, culminating in a February 17, 2005 press release which announced that no criminal charges would be filed. The prosecutor cited a lack of “credible and admissible evidence” which could be used to find Cosby guilty.
Constand then filed a civil case that year, alleging “battery, sexual assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other related claims,” which was subsequently settled privately in 2006. In 2015, portions of depositions taken during that case were made public, including Cosby’s admission to using Quaaludes “for young women that [he] wanted to have sex with.” Cosby clarified after this statement that he misunderstood and referred only to Constand, not other “women.” His comments in the deposition ignited a wave of publicity, alerting other victims of his to a recognizable pattern. Shortly after, a number of other women publicly accused Mr. Cosby of taking advantage of them in a similar manner and filed civil suits against him.
Which leads us to where we are now. In December 2015, a newly elected Montgomery County Pennsylvania prosecutor reopened Constand’s criminal case based on the newfound evidence and an impending expiration of the twelve year statute of limitations. Cosby was arraigned on three charges of aggravated indecent assault and posted one million dollars bail.
Cosby has made several attempts to stop this case from moving forward, filing a series of motions and even filing a lawsuit against his accuser, claiming that Constand’s cooperation in the criminal proceedings has violated the terms of their 2006 settlement agreement. Cosby even filed a last-minute motion asking the court to stay the criminal trial until the claims against her were adjudged. A judge denied that motion on Monday.
To further thwart Cosby’s endeavors to derail the criminal proceedings, Judge Elizabeth McHugh today ruled that a trial on all charges will go forward. Since a pretrial hearing employs a low standard to determine if there is enough evidence for the case to move, the ruling indicates that the evidence presented is “more likely than not” to indicate Cosby’s guilt.
A preliminary hearing also permits a prosecutor to introduce statements and evidence that may be inadmissible at trial, and in the run up to the hearing and at the hearing itself, Cosby’s counsel argued against the admissibility of much of the evidence. His attorneys objected on a hearsay basis to the fact that Constand herself did not appear at the hearing, and instead the prosecutor read her statement from 2005. “Hearsay evidence” relies on out-of-court statements made by individuals to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. In a criminal trial, the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that a defendant is given the opportunity to face his accuser, and that the court is able to make a determination on the accuser’s reliability. Unless she qualifies for certain specific exemptions, Constand will likely need to appear at trial to corroborate the statement herself under oath. At trial, this and other evidence is likely to be contested further. Specifically, it is likely that Cosby’s defense team will attempt to exclude the evidence that was presented during the civil case, which is the subject of a confidential settlement agreement.
Cosby has aggressively denied the assault claims, arguing that all interactions with Constand were consensual in nature. As evidenced in his depositions, he already admitted to giving her pills and having sexual interactions with her. That makes this case a question of consent. And regardless of what she may have said or implied by the way of consent, all of that could be undermined if she was incapacitated to the point that she could be deemed unable to provide legal consent at all.
In recent years, over 50 women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault—that’s what makes this trial so momentous. So far, these are the only criminal charges Cosby has faced. It’s possible that the trial could provide new convincing evidence for other accusers in other states, or on a smaller but meaningful level, affirm the validity of persecuting Cosby based on one’s accusations. A number of states in which Cosby has been accused have no statutes of limitation on sexual assault crimes, meaning those cases could be opened against him.
But even if the Constand trial yields no further legal ramifications, it will—and already has—have an effect on more coming forward, and being emboldened in their claims. “[Patricia Leary] Steuer joined on as a Jane Doe in the 2005 Andrea Constand lawsuit;” New York magazine wrote in July 2015, “she had initially wanted a pseudonym in New York, but when the news broke that Cosby admitted in depositions that he’d given women quaaludes, she sent an email saying that protection wasn’t necessary. ‘He can no longer claim that we are lying,’ she wrote.” Linda Brown, another of Cosby’s accusers, echoed that sentiment in the same article: “When I realized that not only wasn’t I the only one, but he did this to many, many women, I felt the need to come forward and help report them because there is strength in numbers.”
At the age of 78, it seems as though Bill Cosby is likely to spend the rest of his life combating claims that will bankrupt him and dismantle (what’s left of) his legacy—if not put him behind bars. Cosby’s next court date is July 20 (today’s judgment did not make clear when his trial will actually begin), but the tide building against Cosby is only just beginning to crash down on him.