Bill Cosby’s release from prison on June 30 was a sorrowful, unexpected and deeply strange result for those who’d felt justice had been served with his conviction for sexual assault three years ago. It was the latest twist in an emotionally wrenching case that has seen more than 60 women come forward to accuse him of sexual assault and misconduct dating back to the 1960s. The end of his incarceration should not overshadow the fact that, in many meaningful ways, Cosby will live in the wake of his alleged crimes for the rest of his life.
Thanks to a narrow and seemingly misguided instance of prosecutorial intervention, Cosby has eluded his punishment in one sense. But Cosby’s accusers have ensured that, no matter what happens in the courtroom going forward, their voices are now more powerful than his in the public square.
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Allegations against Cosby had been in the air for many years before they gained critical mass — some years before the 2017 avalanche of disclosures about the conduct of now convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein kicked off a widespread cultural reckoning. In 2014, a Netflix comedy special and an NBC family sitcom, both major potential showcases for Cosby, were put on indefinite hold in the midst of a steadily building drumbeat of meaningful coverage of Cosby’s alleged misdeeds. Once one of the most successful entertainers in American history, Cosby has effectively been banished from working in mainstream circles. He has his defenders — as evidenced by a tweet from his “Cosby Show” onscreen wife Phylicia Rashad declaring that “a terrible wrong is being righted” — it feels impossible, from this standpoint, to imagine what mainstream media outlet would give him the opportunity to stage a full-scale comeback.
Which is not to say that Cosby will literally never work again. Peers of his, men who’ve fallen from positions at the top of society when the audience learned of or came to reevaluate their private behavior, have managed to literally get bookings. Kevin Spacey has reportedly taken a small part on an upcoming Italian film; Europe, too, has provided a landing spot for Woody Allen, whose last American-set film, “A Rainy Day in New York,” was disavowed by much of its cast and was never theatrically released stateside, and whose memoir was cancelled by its publisher Hachette after a staff revolt. For context, though, until Anthony Rapp came forward with sexual-misconduct allegations against Spacey in 2017, the actor was near the very peak of his career, having hosted the Tonys that year and racked up Emmy nominations for Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Spacey will almost certainly never get back there, nor Allen back to a place where his movies are financed uncritically by major American corporations. Even as they may work, they must adjust to a circumstance in which their reputations follow them.
The same reality confronts Cosby, a man for whom justice can mean many different things. In the most literal sense, he is free from prison. In the practical sense, he is constrained at every turn, rejected by an industry he once dominated and by a public who was for too long willing to overlook the voices of his accusers. The fact that he was let out of prison thanks to a 16-year-old bargain invalidates those voices only in the courtroom; The sound of revulsion that many feel at the idea of a new Cosby project resonates loud and clear.
The women who faced down Cosby were presented with an uphill legal battle in the first place; the accuser whose case made it to trial, Andrea Constand, was within the statute of limitations, but most accusations were not. And Cosby’s legal team has always maintained he was shielded from prosecution thanks to an agreement struck in 2005 that was at the time intended to make it easier for Constand to pursue a civil case against Cosby, and she struck a $3.4 million settlement with him in 2006.
The powerful case that Cosby’s accusers collectively made to the public never came with a guarantee that it would lead to legal repercussions. But it had the power to convince the individual consumer of media. The court of public opinion has deprived Cosby of his freedom, not by ensuring he’d be put behind bars for what his accusers might agree to be a proportional sentence but by foreclosing his ability to credibly deny them. He does, as he’s entitled to do; we in the audience reserve our right, en masse, to take a side.
The #MeToo era has seen many public figures fall from lofty positions but relatively few actually face prosecution in the courtroom; a lesson of this time has been recalibrating our understanding of what justice can mean. An 83-year-old man living out the rest of his life in prison would have been one version of justice. Another is that same man, free to sell his story of woe to a public that has thought critically about it, and pre-emptively rejects it. Cosby, rigorously maintaining with a few public allies a story of his innocence, is unable or unwilling to begin a process of apologizing to those he is alleged to have hurt, including Constand. Who will take the time to hear him out now, on any stage even a tenth, even a hundredth as grand as those he occupied before the women who accused him were finally heard? The prison he’s in is one made of denial and rage rather than bricks and bars, but it holds him, and any potential he might otherwise have had, nonetheless.
This cannot be the specific result anyone who believes those women might have hoped for. But given how many facts seemed stacked against the prosecution, it’s worth finding a way to see it as a win. To look at it otherwise — to perceive Cosby as having won on the merits rather than having been freed thanks to an odd quirk of history and prosecutorial misjudgment — is to grant Cosby a power he does not in fact possess, to give credence to a story in his defense that the public’s heard enough of. For the foreseeable future, Cosby will be known, first, as a man accused of brutally traumatizing many, many women.
Whatever he has to say for himself comes second.
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