Proceedings for Commonwealth v. William Henry Cosby, Jr., began at 9:30 A.M. on Monday, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. The trial concerns Cosby’s alleged sexual assault of a woman named Andrea Constand, in 2004. The weather was gray and drizzly; the outside world threatened constantly to intrude. Cosby, who is now seventy-nine years old, walked into the courthouse with his “TV daughter” Keshia Knight Pulliam, the actress who played Rudy Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” A court monitor wearing a coral-colored jacket circled the press benches, making sure that journalists were only taking notes, and not sending e-mails. In an impassioned hour-long speech to the jury, Judge Steven T. O’Neill reminded the group repeatedly not to communicate about the case by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media. They were told to avoid search engines and TV news, and not to speak about Cosby to their family members, their friends, or their fellow-jurors. They could get to know each other by talking about sports, O’Neill advised, or the weather, but probably not politics; at the tacit invocation of Donald Trump, who has his own extensive inventory of sexual-assault accusations, a low and sickly laugh rumbled through the wood-panelled courtroom. “You’re a sequestered jury, and this is 2017, not 1970,” O’Neill said. “If this was then—then sequestration, blocking everything from you, that’s easily done. But that ship has sailed.”
Other ships have sailed, too. As far as public opinion goes, Cosby has already lost the presumption of innocence that is expected to govern the courtroom. Constand first reported the alleged assault in January, 2005; the Montgomery County district attorney dismissed the case a month later, but Constand lodged a civil suit against Cosby, which was settled, in 2006, for an undisclosed amount. Nine years later, in July, 2015, several months after the comedian Hannibal Buress was videotaped at a Philadelphia comedy show telling the audience to Google accusations of rape against Cosby—prompting Cosby to deny the allegations again—a U.S. district judge unsealed part of Cosby’s deposition in the civil case, writing, in his decision, that the deposition offered a “stark contrast” to Cosby’s identity as a “public moralist.” Cosby admitted in the deposition that he used to procure quaaludes specifically to give to women whom he wanted to have sex with. The same month that the deposition was unsealed, New York magazine put thirty-five women who had accused Cosby of assault on the cover of an issue. The essential, often insurmountable difficulty embedded within the vast majority of sexual-assault accusations—the he-said-she-said problem—no longer seems vexing to most people, in this case. On a recent episode of his podcast, “Black on the Air,” Larry Wilmore read out, “He said,” then repeated “She said” sixty times, once for each Cosby accuser, more or less.
The outcome of the trial in Norristown may depend, in large part, on the degree to which Cosby’s often-alleged behavioral pattern of drugging women before initiating sexual contact with them is admitted as evidence. In a pre-trial motion in February, O’Neill winnowed the prosecution’s list of thirteen accusers ready to testify to one woman, Kelly Johnson, who took the stand on Monday. Of the stories proffered by the prosecution’s desired witnesses, Johnson’s had occurred most recently. In the nineties, she worked at the William Morris Agency, assisting Tom Illius, who was Cosby’s agent at the time. In her testimony, she said that Cosby had gradually become more familiar with her, eventually seeming to take an interest in her career. They had an uncomfortable encounter at his house, she said, in which he invited her to practice acting with him. In the scene they practiced, her character was tipsy; the scene ended with an embrace and a kiss, which she dodged “six times,” she said. “He pretty much dismissed me,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t happy with me. I wasn’t coöperative.” Then, in 1996, Cosby invited her to his bungalow at the Hotel Bel-Air for lunch. He greeted her in a bathrobe and slippers, and offered her a pill to relax.
Johnson was asked to recount parts of the subsequent series of events multiple times by both the defense and the prosecution, and each time she did her best to control her tears. She took the pill with water but held it in her mouth, she said. Then Cosby handed her a glass of wine and asked to see under her tongue. She swallowed the pill. She went to the bathroom, trying to compose herself, and saw prescription bottles littering the counter. She tried to read them, but didn’t have her glasses, and was losing her grip, she said: time was growing elastic, and she felt “underwater.” On the stand, her sense of fear and humiliation seemed to come back quickly. She recalled thinking that she was making too much noise with the pill bottles, and that she had been in the bathroom too long. When she came to her senses, she was on Cosby’s bed, she told the jury, with her dress pushed down below her breasts and up at the hemline; Cosby, standing behind her, put lotion on her hand and masturbated himself with it, she said. At work the next week, she eavesdropped on a call between Cosby and her boss, in which Cosby called her a problem and suggested that Illius fire her.
Cosby’s attorney, Brian McMonagle, did his best to discredit Johnson’s account. He took an openly scornful tone in his cross-examination, often shifting his voice into a high-pitched, incredulous bark. After the phone call between Cosby and Illius, Johnson filed a workers’-compensation claim, citing psychological damages from her time at William Morris; she testified in a two-day deposition, in 1996. On Monday, Johnson seemed uncertain of details surrounding this testimony, and her recollection of the time line of events was inconsistent. (On Tuesday morning, the attorney who represented William Morris in Johnson’s workers’-compensation case confirmed, on the stand, that Johnson’s chronology in 1996 differed from her account this week—though her description of what happened at the bungalow has not changed.) Initially, she had said nothing about Cosby to William Morris H.R. “You didn’t want to say anything?” McMonagle shouted. He asked her, bizarrely and repeatedly, whether she had done drugs—cocaine, specifically—in the nineties. Johnson said that she had not. “So you, never having done drugs in your life, took a pill from a man’s hand, who was in a bathrobe?” he asked. On at least five occasions, he suggested that her testimony had been manufactured by Gloria Allred, who represents Johnson and thirty-two other women who have accused Cosby of assault. After Johnson seemed uncertain about her exact behavior following the alleged incident at the bungalow, he asked his final question: “Did anyone tell you to get selective amnesia in this case?” Johnson held herself together, and she answered no.
It is difficult, even in the case of Bill Cosby and his nearly sixty accusers, to be a woman with a story of sexual assault. In her opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden laid out Constand’s narrative, which resembles Johnson’s. Feden addressed both real and apparent inconsistencies: Constand mixed up dates; she maintained contact with Cosby after the incident. (Cosby does not dispute that the sexual encounters with Johnson and Constand occurred.) No one can predict how a person will act after experiencing sexual trauma, Feden said. At key moments, she strode over to Cosby and pointed at him dramatically, but, for the most part, she spoke with the demeanor of an anchor on a nighttime news special: considerate, calibrated, concerned. When McMonagle delivered his opening statement, on the other hand, I was reminded of something I never need to be reminded of: that a certain version of male authority doesn’t just allow for aggression; it requires it. The only thing worse than sexual assault, McMonagle said, was a false accusation of sexual assault. It was the jury’s job to “right a wrong” for Cosby, to “protect a man from the destruction of the rest of his life.” He practically spat out his recap of Constand’s story, which, he emphasized, had been deemed unworthy of a criminal case, in 2005, before—and this part he didn’t say—before we learned about all the other women, whose accounts are technically inadmissible but whose stories, nonetheless, permeate everything. Everything, that is, except this trial, insofar as the judge can insure it. “Try to be the juror you would want if it was your father, or your grandfather, or your son, or you,” McMonagle said. Constand’s reopened case is proof that the conversation around sexual assault has changed significantly in recent years, and still, it seems, at times, that a woman accusing a man of sexual assault will be found guilty even if she is proven innocent in the end.