Shortly before 1 p.m. on Wednesday, my cell and office phones began ringing off the hook and my social-media accounts exploded.
What’s going on? Is this true? How is this possible? Can you explain how this happened?
Many of these calls were from Bill Cosby’s accusers, who were reeling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision overturning his conviction and ordering his immediate release while also forbidding he be tried for a third time. I’ve gotten to know many of them during my 16 years covering this story, so they knew how to reach me and had good reason to think maybe I could shed some light on how this happened.
I’d fully expected the State Supreme Court to rule in Cosby’s favor after I watched the oral arguments last December. The justices were openly hostile and contemptuous of the prosecution. At one point, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor even walked away while Montgomery County Assistant district attorney Adrienne Jappe was answering one of his questions. He was offscreen for ten minutes, no explanation whatsoever given for his absence upon his return.
But I didn’t expect them to rule in his favor on this issue, that former Montgomery County district attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. had promised Cosby he wouldn’t be prosecuted in Andrea Constand’s case if he cooperated with her civil suit against him, which Cosby relied on when he made so many incriminating statements during his depositions, some of which were used against him in the criminal trial. It was an astonishing decision because there is no proof that conversation ever happened, just Castor’s word. It was absurd on its face.
The other issue — whether or not five other accusers should have been allowed to testify at his second trial — seemed like one the court would want to address since there’s little clarity on how many of these witnesses are too many in a case. But even if the court did overturn the conviction, the remedy is usually a new trial, not what happened this week: barring the prosecutor from trying him again and ordering his immediate release from prison. It was a decision that just reeks of special treatment, and it was an outright smack in the face to some of his accusers, who said they cried for hours after learning about it. And they worried about what could happen next.
“I’m so concerned now for any woman that comes in close contact with him,” said Lili Bernard, a visual artist and actor who was a guest star on The Cosby Show, playing the memorable role of the enormously pregnant and zany Mrs. Minifield in 1992, and says Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her three times in the early ’90s.
She also finds his claims that the prosecution was racially motivated absurd.
“Of course it’s not about race,” said Bernard, who describes herself as a Cuban-born immigrant of mixed African, Caribbean, European, and Chinese ancestry. “Where it is about race is this — about 6.5 percent of the U.S population is Black women, so Bill Cosby disproportionately targeted Black women because one-third of his known accusers are Black women. That’s the only place where I see race plays into it.”
P.J. Masten, who said Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in 1979, was still distraught when we spoke Thursday afternoon. She was even more horrified to learn Cosby’s spokesman, Andrew Wyatt, says Cosby intends to start touring to share his story and has a book and documentary coming out.
“Oh my God,” she said. “You want to talk about rubbing volcanic salt in the wounds of the survivors. My God. How much more can we take?”
Tamara Green — who was the second woman to come forward back in 2005 after hearing comments Castor made during a news conference that convinced her he had no intention of charging Cosby criminally (she was right) and told me her story of being drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby around 1970 — is an attorney herself, so her first instinct was to analyze the legal end of it.
“I thought, Well done, lawyers, because I did not see the issue coming at all,” she said. “I thought that was just a practice swing. ‘Oh, yeah. Let’s toss this one in too.’ But I want people to understand this does not mean he’s been exonerated. He has just won the appeal because the court ruled Bruce Castor’s agreement not to prosecute him was violated. So he walks.” Not that she actually believes there was such a deal back then, either.
As one of his accusers, though, she admits she feels a range of emotions about the decision. “I feel regret that he got out but surprised because I never thought that this issue would be the issue that sprung him,” she said. “Mostly I regret how many of the 62 who stuck their necks out are so hurt. I feel bad about that. I have an extra cushion because I’ve been a lawyer for a long time and I do love the law, but without that I would feel less sanguine about it than I do. I certainly understand other people’s anger and fury. I’m with them in that sense.”
She wants people to remember one thing: “The court did not say Bill Cosby did not do it,” she said. “The court said Bill Cosby did not get a fair trial and those are two emotionally different things. We all know he did it, and by we, I mean the 62 women who showed up.”
Plus, she said, “I don’t feel like he’s gotten away scot-free. I feel like he’s done three years and that’s a long time for an 83-year-old man. You cannot go to prison without being changed by it. So, I’m thinking as an 83-year-old man, he’s learned his lessons and will behave himself and I hope he spends the remaining time he has to do some good. Anything.”
Green and Therese Serignese, who said Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in the mid-1970s, were among the seven women who successfully sued Cosby for defamation. Their lawsuits were settled by Cosby’s insurance company for an undisclosed amount in April 2019. Cosby’s release has left Serignese feeling something she hasn’t felt in the nearly three years since he went to prison: fear.
“I haven’t been afraid of him while he was in prison,” she said. “Now I feel anxious and scared because he has the ammunition to go after us again. Will I be silenced once again because I live in fear of Bill Cosby? The power he has through his vast resources I don’t have. I still live in fear of what he does and what he has done.”
She is grateful, though, that his deposition in Constand’s lawsuit became public and that in that deposition, he admitted to drugging her when she was 19.
“It did give me some relief,” she said. “He called it sex. I call it rape. So that gives me some comfort. That can’t ever be taken back. We all know who he is. And whatever happens, he did spend three years in prison. In America, I guess that’s about as good as it gets for a sexual-assault victim.”
She’s also heartened by the public’s outraged reaction to his release.
“I’m reading these stories now and it just makes me want to cry,” she said. “I know the world believes us. I think I’ll be processing it for some time, but I do feel like we all did the right thing. We gave it our best shot.”
In 2014, after the Cosby case exploded into the headlines again, his accusers marshaled their resources and got statutes of limitations for sexual assault extended or eliminated in California, Colorado, and Nevada. Now they’re regrouping and seeing what else needs to be done to help other survivors out there in the wake of this setback.
“We have a lot of work to do going forward,” Serignese said, “so our voices are heard.”
Nicole Weisensee Egan is the author of the book Chasing Cosby, host and executive producer of the podcast based on the book, and co-author of Victim F, which was just released June 8.