Culture

Will Bill Cosby’s Admission Have Real Legal Consequences? We Consult The Experts

CREDIT: AP/Brennan Linsley

When the 2005 court deposition of Bill Cosby — formerly beloved comedian, currently alleged serial rapist — came to light this week, courtesy of the Associated Press, a person could have read the statement and thought: Did he just confess?

Cosby acknowledges in the deposition that he purchased quaaludes; when asked if, at the time of this acquisition, “was it in your mind that you were going to use these quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?”, Cosby answered, “Yes.”

Over 40 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault. Their allegations date back decades. Several of these women came forward with their stories years ago, only to see a reinvigorated interest in their cases after comedian Hannibal Buress cracked a joke about Cosby during a standup set last fall.

After all these allegations, after all this time, is Bill Cosby person whose words might finally finish Bill Cosby? How damaging is this information for him, and how powerful is it for his accusers? The statute of limitations on many of the cases against Cosby have expired– many, but not all. Cosby’s alleged rape of Lili Bernard, an actress, took place in New Jersey, where there is no statute of limitations in these cases. Bernard says she was drugged and raped by Cosby in the early 1990s; she reported her assault to the Atlantic City Police Department about two months ago.

Janice Dickinson sued Cosby for defamation, claiming that Cosby’s lawyer, Martin Singer, called her a “liar” when she publicly accused Cosby in November 2014. Three accusers — Tamara Green, Linda Traitz and Therese Serignes — filed a federal lawsuit against Cosby in Massachusetts, also alleging defamation by Cosby and his legal counsel.

To see Cosby’s own words admitting that he has done what dozens have accused his of doing is like an eerie echo of the last scene of The Jinx, when the text across the bottom of the screen showed a hot-mic-wearing Robert Durst seemingly confessing that he “killed them all, of course.”

While Cosby’s deposition, like Durst’s apparent confession, may look to the casual observer like inviolable proof that a guilty-looking man is guilty, does this—legally, technically—prove anything at all?

drugs cosby

CREDIT: Associated Press

“As a trial lawyer, the first thing that popped into my mind was: I can use this,” said Leigh Goodmark, director of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law Gender Violence Clinic. “Anyone who cross-examines him will be able to question him about the motives behind his crimes. So even though, usually, in a trial, you can’t use someone’s past bad behavior against them, there are exceptions.”

The fact that Cosby describes what he does as “having sex” instead of “rape,” said Goodman, is something she’d bring up in a closing statement. “He still sees this as having sex, and that is not what it is. He’s giving them a drug to lower their inhibitions and they can’t fight him off, and that’s not sex. That’s rape.”

“Even though Cosby never says, ‘I actually gave quaaludes to women with whom I had sex in order to drug them,’ there’s enough in the deposition for people to make that connection: that he bought them with the intent to give them to women to have sex, and that he did, in fact, on at least one occasion, give them to women with whom he was planning to have sex,” Goodmark said. “And it matches up completely with one victim’s story about her encounter with him.”

Bruce Castor, the former district attorney who oversaw the 2005 investigation against Cosby (which did not result in any charges) told MSNBC that he thinks the deposition could support criminal perjury charges. “I can tear that deposition apart, and anything that I can prove is a material lie would still be subject to a perjury investigation and prosecution,” Castor said. He added that “a good argument can be made” that the statute of limitations hasn’t run out because the deposition had been sealed until this week.

But according to Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, it’s not so clear that Cosby’s words will be taken as a clear sign of his guilt. “I think with the crime of rape, there is never a smoking gun,” she said. “The public is always waiting for someone to say, ‘I did it.’ [But] it virtually never happens.”

From a legal perspective, “I think that this is virtually insignificant [for] all of the victims whose statute of limitations have run,” Bruno said. “It is potentially irrelevant in those cases where the statute of limitations has not run, because, more likely than not, you’re not going to be able to use information like that.” Whether or not this information is admissible is “subject to these rules of evidence that, in a criminal trial, favor the perpetrator.”

So how damning is this, really? On a scale from “he’s going to rot in a cell until he dies” to “he will skip off into the sunset, unscathed, wearing a sweater, eating Jell-o, and telling black boys to pull up their pants,” how much damage did Bill Cosby just do to Bill Cosby?

“I think it’s really, really hard to know that,” said Goodmark. “As someone who has tried gender violence cases for 20 years, it never ceases to amaze me how many ways that judges and juries can find to explain away someone’s behavior, even when it seems very, very clear.”

Though she wouldn’t give a client a prognostication, Goodmark said her read on the Cosby outcome is “50/50. If they take it to a criminal trial, all you need is one juror who is willing to hang everything up because they believe he should be out there,” happily living his life. “If you’re his defense attorney, you’re going to tear apart that causal connection. You’ll say: he may have gotten the drugs with the intent of having sex with those women, and then he had sex with those women, but you haven’t connected it. They could have taken [the drug] consensually; they could’ve wanted to have sex with a celebrity. [The victim’s] character will be on trial, her willingness to go backstage and have sex with him the same day.”

“If this were my case, I’d be telling my clients not to get their hopes so far up,” Goodmark said. “That while this is really, really good for our case, you simply don’t know what is going to happen, and a good defense attorney will break that connection, and will say, ‘It may have happened in X case but not in this case.’ It’s easy for us to see this as a slam dunk and it is not.”

“What he admits to is that he got quaaludes for women he wanted to have sex with. That’s what he said, and he hasn’t said anything else,” said Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Rape Victim Advocates. “So there’s still this room to be like, ‘Well, if they took the drugs willingly, is he responsible?’ Yes, because drugged consent is not consent. Or, ‘If they took the drugs willingly, then they got what they deserved.’ Or saying, ‘Just because that was the case in this case doesn’t mean it cross-applies to everybody.’”

Keeping all that in mind, the excitement over this new information is predicated on “the fact that other people are looking for things that are things other than believing the victim,” said Bruno. “So I think yes, there will be some people whose heads turn when they see this evidence. But I think there will be equal, if not more, people who will just go on disbelieving no matter what the evidence looks like.”

Among the devoted Cosby believers is Whoopi Goldberg, who even after the release of this 2005 deposition stands by him. On The View, she told her fellow co-hosts that “You are still innocent until proven guilty” adding that Cosby “has not been proven a rapist.” (She also told those who would disagree with her to “save your texts, save your nasty comments, I don’t care.”)

Those who wish to believe in Cosby’s innocence can easily find a route by which to do so, Bruno said. “They’ll say, ‘Just because he did this to one person doesn’t mean that he did it to all 20-something of his victims.’” As we have seen over and over again, “The public is very forgiving when it comes to rape. And the public is particularly forgiving when it comes to people that we ‘trust’ or people that have public personas that have played a role in our lives.”

Singer Jill Scott, who until this morning had vigorously defended Cosby against the multitude of rape allegations, changed her stance once this deposition became public. But on Wednesday, she tweeted: “About Bill Cosby. Sadly, his testimony offers PROOF of terrible deeds, which is all I have ever required believing the accusations.” Later, she added, “Proof will always matter more than public opinion. The sworn testimony is proof. Completely disgusted.”

“Why is it that 25 women’s stories are not evidence, but the one guy with the motive to lie, that’s evidence?” said Goodmark. “And I just think that’s indicative of a larger problem we have with gender violence in the United States: we don’t believe women.”

A demonstrator holds a sign protesting a performance underway by comedian Bill Cosby inside the Buell Theater in Denver, Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015.

A demonstrator holds a sign protesting a performance underway by comedian Bill Cosby inside the Buell Theater in Denver, Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015.

CREDIT: AP/Brennan Linsley

In the event that Cosby walks away from this — with a wrecked reputation but no legal repercussions for his alleged actions — what does that mean for the dozens of women who are accusing him of rape? Setting aside, for the moment, where Cosby goes from here, where do they go from here?

“What justice looks like is not always the same for everybody,” said Majmudar. “For someone, the only thing that would look like justice for them is that he’s behind bars. For others, it’s that he is no longer able to continue to bank on a legacy of this wholesome image, father-figure [persona] that he has cultivated. So the fact that there are shows of his that have been canceled, that he’s no longer able to garner income from his celebrity status, that may look like justice. For others, justice may look like: you’re going pay, dearly and in public. For others: you’re going to pay and in private. What’s interesting to me about this case is, the criminal legal process is just not available for so many of these survivors. I think it forces us to think about: what does justice look like when the criminal system is not an option?”

In Majmudar’s work with survivors, some only “really, desperately want for the person who assaulted them to admit it. To admit what they did and admit that it was wrong. And obviously that’s something that they often do not get. They want to hear someone with authority say: what happened to you was wrong, it shouldn’t have happened, and this is who is responsible for it.”

So if this latest development is a development that goes nowhere, there is still this one, not-so-small small thing.

“When I heard this information, I immediately thought of the survivors who have, for some of them for decades, suffered from a tremendous amount of victim-blaming, the result of the myths and misconceptions surrounding sexual assault that the public has about sexual assault,” said Viktoria Kristiansson, attorney advisor for AEquitas, the Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women.. “Hearing what essentially amounts to an admission probably and hopefully helps those survivors feel just a little better.”