What It Felt Like to Attend the Cosby Trial with Six of His Accusers

by Caroline Heldman on June 27, 2017

The author (right of center) with several Cosby accusers. (Photos courtesy of author)

(This piece first appeared in the LA Progressive)

I spent 13 days at the Cosby trial with a group of women who say he drugged and sexually assaulted them—which made the eventual mistrial all the more painful.

I didn’t cry at first when a mistrial was announced in the Bill Cosby case. The tears would come later, on the long plane ride home, when I was surrounded by strangers but too tired to care. I’d spent nearly two weeks watching the trial with six women who had publicly accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them. Some of them broke down in tears after the verdict, while others were stunned and silent.

Thirteen days earlier, I had arrived in the quaint town of Norristown, Pennsylvania, where the trial was held. I was there to stand in solidarity with Andrea Constand, who says Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2004, and Kelly Johnson, a witness for the prosecution and the only other Cosby accuser allowed to testify during the proceedings. (She claims Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in 1996.)

I was also there to support six other women who were not permitted to testify in the case: Lili Bernard, Victoria Valentino, Therese Serignese, Jewel Allison, Barbara Bowman, and Linda Kirkpatrick. Although they weren’t allowed to share their stories with the jury, these women had come to show solidarity with Constand. A “guilty” verdict in Constand’s case would represent justice for all Cosby’s accusers—at least 60 women in all.

Despite the fact that dozens of women have come forward with reports of sexual violence from Cosby, Constand is the first to see her day in criminal court. This is because hers was the only case to fall within the statute of limitations for reporting sex crimes—an unjust policy many of Cosby’s accusers have struggled with. (In fact, I first met Bernard, Kirkpatrick, and Valentino when we ran a campaign that overturned the statute of limitations on rape in California.) Survivors often wait decades to come forward because they fear that no one will believe them, and that they will face victim-blaming and harassment. In these women’s cases, this fear was heightened by Cosby’s celebrity status.

Cosby’s trial started on Monday, June 5. I rose at 6 AM and rushed to the courthouse to meet up with Bernard, Kirkpatrick, and Serignese. The air was tense but quiet as we all waited in line, sizing up our fellow attendees and guessing which side they were on. Watching the trial beside several women who had accused Cosby of raping them was an agonizing experience. During his opening statement, Cosby’s defense lawyer, Brian McMonagle, unleashed a litany of myths about sexual assault, lambasting Constand for behavior typical of victims: having multiple phone conversations with Cosby after the alleged rape (on her Temple University phone, where he was a trustee), experiencing memory lapses about inane details not related to the rape, and waiting so long to report.

The women beside me, too, had been too afraid to come forward, and had waited decades to share their stories. They knew they wouldn’t have been believed then; they may still not be believed now, as the defense team’s arguments clearly demonstrated. At one point, Bernard leaned in and whispered, “Why would any rape survivor ever go to court?” The blood had drained from her face

The prosecution argued that Cosby’s own words would convict him: In a sworn deposition from 2005, he had explicitly admitted to obtaining Quaaludes “for young women [he] wanted to have sex with.” He also confirmed that he gave Constand the pills, that he lied to her about the pills being herbal, and that he penetrated her with his fingers. “Trust, betrayal, and the inability to consent,” said Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden in her opening statement. “That is what this case is about.”

What followed, from the prosecution, was a sustained character assassination attempt on both Constand and Johnson. The defense effectively painted Johnson as a sexually promiscuous drug user whose word could not be trusted, despite the fact that she won an employment discrimination complaint after reporting that Cosby raped her and tried to get her fired from the William Morris agency. For Constand, the defense spun a wildly unsubstantiated tale of romance between her and Cosby. McMonagle referenced steamy fireside chats which Constand, who identifies as a lesbian, says never happened, and portrayed Cosby’s previous acts of sexual harassment—touching Constand’s leg and trying to unbutton her pants—as consensual. He even spun Constand delivering bath salts to Cosby and his wife from a friend who had just started a bath salt company as a romantic gesture. Throughout the proceeding, the defense framed Constand as immoral: “You knew he was a married man, right?”

During the breaks, Cosby’s accusers and I would convene in a less-trafficked bathroom, away from the throngs of reporters and protesters, to process what we had just heard. Every cross-examination was like opening old wounds. Reeling, everyone would point out the striking similarities in the dozens of accusations against Cosby—that he had allegedly mentored, drugged, and raped so many women—and share stories of numerous women who said he was grooming them at the same time. There were occasional tears and flagging spirits, exacerbated by anxious sleepless nights.

After the prosecution closed its case, the defense did not present one. They only put one witness on the stand, a police officer who had previously testified for the prosecution, in order to introduce a document. McMonagle had a strong close with an appeal to “common sense,” again focusing on the fact that Constand was still in contact with Cosby after the rape, and that she took so long to report. However, the evidence seemed overwhelming. The women I was with were cautiously optimistic, given the damning nature of Cosby’s own words and the parallels between Johnson’s and Constand’s accounts, but I had been struggling since day one with a sinking feeling that we would not see justice.

In the second week of the trial, once jury deliberations began, each day was an interminable 14-hour wait in a marble atrium outside Courtroom A, punctuated every few hours by a call to the courtroom. Like Pavlov’s dogs, each time the doors would open, a small crowd of reporters, survivors, and spectators would drop whatever they were in the middle of to rush into line. Each session held the promise of a verdict, but instead, we were summoned for jury questions, answers to jury questions, and Judge Stephen O’Neill’s instructions to the jury each night.

As the days wore on, our enthusiasm and energy turned to sorrow. It was apparent that at least one juror was convinced of Cosby’s innocence. When the jury first announced that it was deadlocked, on Thursday, we funneled out of the courtroom, numb. A few of us made our way to a more private corridor where we could vent and cry without prying eyes. I thought back to the first day of the trial when we entered the courtroom with relatively innocent optimism. It felt like a year had gone by, and I was a different person: emotionally exhausted, more cynical.

Although the jury deadlocked just four days into the proceedings, their deliberations continued for several more days, after the judge asked them to continue. While there is no way to know for sure, the count appeared to be 11:1. Several interactions with one man on the jury made it seem that he was a (the?) holdout. On Wednesday, he walked into the courtroom with sunglasses on and a big smile, while most of the other jurors hung their glum heads. On Thursday, when the judge asked the foreperson if the group needed to see some records projected onto a screen, almost every head in the jury box turned to him, and he rose out of his seat halfway to respond to the question. On that same day, another juror spoke to him sharply as they filed out of the courtroom after hearing Cosby’s comments about Quaaludes (again): “Is that good enough for you?”

As the trial dragged on, Cosby supporters began to appear outside of the courthouse; starting on Wednesday, a small group of them would post up with signs that said “We Love Bill Cosby” and “Free Cosby Now,” from morning to night. Their numbers never reached more than about a dozen, and they were unusually coordinated in chants that started like clockwork at the end of the Cosby spokesperson’s evening press conferences.

On Thursday, tensions boiled over: Allison and Bernard were verbally attacked by small groups of “protesters” with signs, who yelled questions about why they had waited so long to report. Both Bernard and Allison responded with unimaginable magnanimity, Bernard taking the hands of a young man and talking to him about her sons supporting her. The pitch of her voice rose as Cosby supporters talked and yelled over her, and tears streamed down her face as she addressed the crowd. “I experienced it firsthand, when he drugged me, when he raped me, when he threatened me into silence,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. “I came home to my boyfriend at the time—who has been my husband, my one and only, since 1990—I came home drugged and sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby to him.”

I was with Bernard in the middle of the press and protester crush when the head of security tapped me on the shoulder and said it had to end. It was becoming unsafe. Bernard was still in tears as we walked down the sidewalk to the side of the courthouse. Sinking onto a bench, she wept inconsolably.

On Saturday, we were all resigned. We expected a mistrial, and weren’t surprised when it was announced that morning. Though the verdict was expected, it was still painful. Everyone reacted in their own way: weeping, silence, hugging one another, wanting to be alone. For me, this trial reinforced lessons I learned long ago: that rape culture is real, that false myths about rape trump evidence for many people, and that virtually no survivors see justice in our judicial system.

I thought back to a few days before the mistrial was declared—we had discussed the very real possibility of this outcome over a meal with civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred, who has represented several of Cosby’s accusers. As we mulled the fact that injustice is the default for rape survivors, Allison turned to the group and said, defiantly, “This sisterhood. This is the best we’re going to get. This.” I can’t help but think she’s right.

Filed under: National Politics

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