By MICHAEL R. SISAK and CLAUDIA LAUER, Associated Press
NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) — After decades of whispers, lawsuits, investigations and close calls — and a multitude of women who lost hope anyone would ever believe their word against that of America’s Dad — Bill Cosby could be headed to prison at age 80 for the remainder of his life.
The comedian was convicted Thursday of drugging and molesting Temple University employee Andrea Constand at his suburban Philadelphia mansion 14 years ago in a verdict women’s advocates called a turning point in the #MeToo movement that proved what Cosby’s accusers had been saying all along — his nice-guy image was a sham.
Lili Bernard, who said Cosby sexually assaulted her before giving her a one-time role on “The Cosby Show” in 1992, became so emotional in the courtroom gallery that she accidentally banged her forehead on the bench in front of her.
“I’m overcome with gratitude,” Bernard, sobbing, said outside the courthouse. “I feel like I have to pinch myself. Am I awake? It’s a miracle.”
The verdict, in the first big celebrity trial of the #MeToo era, sealed the spectacular late-in-life downfall of an entertainer who broke racial barriers in Hollywood on his way to TV superstardom as sweater-wearing, wisdom-dispensing Dr. Cliff Huxtable.
It was the only criminal case to arise from a barrage of allegations from more than 60 women who said Cosby drugged and molested them over five decades but whose stories were often disbelieved or ignored years before #MeToo put a spotlight on sexual misconduct by powerful men.
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated 14 hours over two days before convicting Cosby of violating Constand in 2004.
Constand, a 45-year-old Temple University women’s basketball administrator, said Cosby knocked her out with three blue pills he called “your friends” and then penetrated her with his fingers as she lay immobilized, unable to resist or say no. Cosby claimed the encounter was consensual, saying he gave her the cold and allergy medicine Benadryl to relax.
Cosby stared straight ahead as the verdict was read but moments later lashed out loudly at District Attorney Kevin Steele after the prosecutor demanded Cosby be sent immediately to jail. Steele told the judge Cosby has an airplane and might flee.
Cosby angrily denied he has a plane and called Steele an “a–hole,” shouting, “I’m sick of him!”
Judge Steven O’Neill decided Cosby can remain free on $1 million bail while he awaits sentencing but restricted him to Montgomery County, where his home is. No sentencing date was set.
Cosby waved to the crowd outside the courthouse, got into an SUV and left without saying anything. His lawyer Tom Mesereau declared “the fight is not over” and said he will appeal.
Shrieks erupted in the courtroom when the verdict was announced, and some of Cosby’s accusers whimpered and cried. Constand remained stoic, then hugged her lawyer and members of the prosecution team.
The verdict came after a two-week retrial in which prosecutors had more courtroom weapons at their disposal than they did the first time: They put on the stand five other women who testified that Cosby, married for 54 years, drugged and violated them, too.
At Cosby’s first trial, which ended in a deadlocked jury less than a year ago, only one additional accuser was allowed to testify.
“Justice has been done!” celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who represented some of Cosby’s accusers, said on the courthouse steps. “We are so happy that finally we can say women are believed.”
The district attorney became teary-eyed as he commended Constand for what he said was courage in coming forward. As Constand stood silently behind him, Steele apologized to her for a previous DA’s decision in 2005 not to charge Cosby.
Cosby “was a man who had evaded this moment for far too long,” Steele said. “He used his celebrity, he used his wealth, he used his network of supporters to help him conceal his crimes.”
He added: “Now, we really know today who was really behind that act, who the real Bill Cosby was.”
Cosby was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault, each carrying a standard sentence of five to 10 years in prison. The counts are likely to be merged for sentencing purposes, but given Cosby’s age even a modest term could mean he will die behind bars.
The fallout from the verdict was immediate: Bounce, a TV network that caters to black viewers, announced it would drop reruns of “The Cosby Show.” And Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, revoked an honorary degree awarded in 2007.
Since Cosby’s first trial, the #MeToo movement has taken down powerful men in rapid succession, among them Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey and Sen. Al Franken. During closing arguments, Cosby’s lawyers slammed #MeToo, calling Cosby its victim and likening it to a witch hunt or a lynching.
Cosby’s new defense team, led by Mesereau, the celebrity attorney who won an acquittal for Michael Jackson on child-molestation charges, launched a ferocious attack on Constand during the trial, calling her a “con artist” and “pathological liar” who framed Cosby to get rich.
The star witness for the defense was Marguerite Jackson, a Temple employee who testified that Constand once spoke of setting up a prominent person and suing.
Constand sued Cosby after prosecutors initially declined to file charges, settling with him for nearly $3.4 million more than a decade ago.
Cosby’s defense team derided the other accusers as home-wreckers and suggested they made up their stories in a bid for money and fame.
But Cosby had long ago confirmed some of the rumors about drugs and extramarital sex. In a deposition he gave more than a decade ago as part of Constand’s lawsuit, he acknowledged he had obtained quaaludes to give to women he wanted to have sex with.
The entertainer broke racial barriers as the first black actor to star in a network show, “I Spy,” in the 1960s. He created the top-ranked “Cosby Show” two decades later. He also found success with his “Fat Albert” animated TV show and appeared in commercials for Jello-O pudding.
Later in his career, he attracted controversy for lecturing about social dysfunction in poor black neighborhoods, railing against young people stealing things and wearing baggy pants.
Comedian Hannibal Buress was credited with helping to start the avalanche of allegations against Cosby when he called the TV star a rapist on a stand-up comedy stage in 2014 and a fan’s cellphone video of the moment went viral.
Not long after, a federal judge, acting on a request from The Associated Press, unsealed portions of Cosby’s deposition about quaaludes and sexual conquests, citing the disconnect between Cosby’s private behavior and his reputation as a public moralist.
The deposition release in 2015 prompted authorities to reopen the criminal investigation, and they eventually brought charges.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission. Constand has done so.
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