Comedian Bill Cosby has been charged with sexual assault. The Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia explains how we got here and what this means for Cosby's already damaged legacy. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

They have accused him on television and in magazines, in memoirs and op-eds.

Bill Cosby had drugged them, women by the dozens said; he’d groped them, raped them, humiliated them, they said.

But for years, no one with the power to put the comedy legend in prison had accused him of committing a crime. That ended Wednesday beneath the fluorescent lights and low-slung ceiling of an unassuming, one-story suburban Philadelphia magistrate court, where Cosby, a pencil-thin cane in hand, was arraigned on a charge of aggravated indecent assault in connection with allegations that he drugged and sexually assaulted a woman at his nearby estate 12 years ago.

The felony charge added to a mountain of legal woes for the 78-year-old actor, who also faces civil lawsuits on both coasts — at least six have been inching their way through courts in Southern California and in Massachusetts, where Cosby and his wife, Camille, have their primary residence. He has even had to fend off his own insurance company in court because it has balked at covering legal costs for a defamation lawsuit brought by one of the accusers.

Some of the cases may go into a state of limbo because of the new criminal charge. Spencer Kuvin, an attorney for Chloe Goins, who has accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her at the Playboy Mansion in 2008, when she was 18, said in an interview that his client’s civil suit would be put on hold so as not to interfere with the criminal proceeding.

“First and foremost, my client wants to see Mr. Cosby behind bars,” Kuvin said. He added that he hopes the Pennsylvania case will prompt Los Angeles prosecutors who have interviewed Goins to move forward with their own criminal case against Cosby.

Gloria Allred, an attorney who represents 29 alleged Cosby victims, said that for many of her clients, “seeing him criminally charged and having to face a trial is the best Christmas present they have ever received.”

The civil suits imperil one of America’s largest entertainment industry fortunes — Cosby’s net worth has been estimated to be as much as $400 million — but the criminal case in Pennsylvania raises the stakes with the threat of a prison sentence of five to 10 years if Cosby is convicted, a term that could stretch until he is nearly 90.

“Make no mistake, we intend to mount a vigorous defense against this unjustified charge and we expect that Mr. Cosby will be exonerated by a court of law,” Cosby’s attorneys said in a statement posted on CNN’s website.

Cosby is accused of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a Temple University women’s basketball team official whom he had met and mentored in the early 2000s. According to the criminal complaint filed by prosecutors Wednesday in Montgomery County, Pa., Cosby drugged Constand at his home one night in January 2004, giving her what he claimed were herbal pills.

“These will make you feel good. The blue things will take the edge off,” Cosby said, according to the complaint. “Yes. Down them. Put ’em down. Put them in your mouth.”

Soon, Constand “lost all strength in her legs,” the complaint said. They felt “rubbery” and “like jelly,” she told prosecutors.

Everything was “blurry,” the complaint said.

Then, Cosby fondled Constand, putting his hands inside her pants, and penetrating “her vagina with his fingers,” the prosecutors alleged. He placed her hand on his erect penis, the complaint said, and she could do nothing about it, let alone give her consent, because she felt “frozen” and “paralyzed.”

When she woke in the morning, the complaint said, her bra was undone and had been “moved above her breasts.” When Cosby appeared, he gave her a muffin, and as she left, the complaint stated, he merely said, “Alright.”

New evidence is cited

Prosecutors in Montgomery County had previously refused to bring charges against Cosby. In 2005, District Attorney Bruce L. Castor reviewed evidence and determined that he could not win a conviction.

But Wednesday, First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele — who is set to take office as district attorney in January — said new evidence that surfaced in July allowed him to bring the criminal complaint against Cosby. Steele appeared to be referring to the release of depositions in a civil lawsuit filed by Constand against Cosby in 2005. The case had ended with an undisclosed settlement, and the depositions were widely thought to be sealed.

The depositions, which were reported on extensively by news media organizations, including The Washington Post and the New York Times, revealed Cosby’s admission that he had given quaaludes to women with whom he wanted to have sex. They also illustrated a pattern of behavior in which Cosby requested talent agents to send him young, vulnerable women to share meals with him in his private dressing room on the set of “The Cosby Show.” At least one of the women has since accused him of sexual assault.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno unsealed those records for the first time in July, writing that Cosby “has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education, and crime. To the extent that Defendant has freely entered the public square and ‘thrust himself into the vortex of [these public issues],’ he has voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.”

Montgomery County, Pa., prosecutors on Wednesday charged Bill Cosby with felony aggravated indecent assault. (Reuters)

The complaint filed Wednesday arrived only days before the 12-year statute of limitations in Pennsylvania was set to expire, said Steele, who won election in November in a race against Castor that featured pointed barbs about the previous decision not to bring charges.

“The charge by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office came as no surprise, filed 12 years after the alleged incident and coming on the heels of a hotly contested election for this county’s DA during which this case was made the focal point,” Cosby’s attorneys said in their statement.

A stir at a small courthouse

Cosby arrived at the tiny courthouse in Elkins Park, an upscale suburb, on Wednesday in a large, black SUV. The court is set in a mostly residential neighborhood, and residents quizzically gazed at the crowd of news media assembled outside.

Cosby wore a loose-fitting hooded sweater — a trademark look — and stepped somewhat wobbily out of the vehicle. He walked up to the courthouse through a crush of cameras, arm-in-arm with high-powered attorney Brian McMonagle, a former Philadelphia prosecutor. Cosby tripped on the sloped curb after exiting the vehicle and called out, “Steps!”

Once through the red metal door leading to Magisterial District Judge Elizabeth A. McHugh’s courtroom, he sat at a wooden table, his hands clasped, before only a couple dozen spectators. The judge sat on one side of the small courtroom, but Cosby — who, his attorneys have said, is legally blind — looked straight ahead for much of the 10-minute proceeding with his slender cane dangling on his left arm.

At one point, Cosby cocked his head to the right as if straining to hear.

But when McHugh asked whether he understood the charge against him, Cosby answered, “Yes,” in a booming voice.

Cosby was required to surrender his battered blue passport, and bail was set for $1 million; he paid a 10 percent bond Wednesday. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 14, although McHugh twice said she would need to move the proceeding to a larger courtroom in the county seat of Norristown, rather than the small space in Elkins Park, which is more commonly used for traffic violations.

As the hearing wrapped up, McHugh said to the comedian, “Mr. Cosby, good luck to you.”

He called back, “Thank you.” Before leaving, he turned to a group of law enforcement officers, including the Montgomery County police chief, and said, “Thank you, Chief.”

After the complaint was filed, Victoria Valentino, a former Playboy Playmate who alleged that Cosby drugged and assaulted her in 1970, said the Pennsylvania case is vindication for the women who have come forward with similar allegations.

“We knew what the truth is, and we made a decision to stand our ground and we were not going to be silenced anymore,” said Valentino, now a nursing school instructor in California who first told her story to The Post last year. “We were not going allow the shame and the blame and the humiliation and the fear of the crime that was perpetrated on us to silence us any longer.”

Key decisions may lie ahead

If the case goes to trial, a key could be whether the judge allows evidence and testimony from some of the more than 50 women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault, many of whom say he also drugged them.

Under rules of evidence in Pennsylvania, prosecutors can introduce allegations brought by the other women if those allegations establish a mode of operation or pattern of behavior by Cosby. Although a judge could rule against prosecutors, the process of determining whether that evidence is admissible will involve court hearings and ­never-before-heard testimony from the other alleged victims of the famed comedian and father figure.

“The chances that they can keep this testimony off the public record is poor because the case hinges on these other allegations,” said Barry Coburn, a ­former federal prosecutor who now works as a criminal- and civil-defense lawyer. “This is going to be devastating to his reputation.”

Brian T. Kelly, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, said the case could turn on the judge’s decisions about allowing or disallowing testimony from other alleged victims.

“This case will be won or lost on the evidentiary rulings,” said Kelly, now a criminal- and white-collar defense lawyer for Nixon Peabody in Boston. “Both sides are going to be very interested in who gets appointed as the judge in this case.”

Bruce Udolf, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who now works as a defense attorney, sharply criticized the decision to bring criminal charges against Cosby. By waiting nearly 12 years, he said, prosecutors have in effect denied the entertainer his right to a fair trial.

“It’s borderline unconstitutional,” Udolf said.

Still, Cosby’s defense team has several ways to protect its client. Udolf said Cosby’s attorneys can ask the judge to dismiss the charges, arguing that they were not brought in a reasonable amount of time. They can also fight efforts to allow the other women to testify, their best chance at winning the case. Cosby’s attorneys could argue that most of the women didn’t file charges in the jurisdictions where they were allegedly assaulted, Udolf said, and that they should not be permitted to bring their allegations into a Pennsylvania courtroom.

“If it was the right thing to do to prosecute the case, it should have been done a long time ago,” Udolf said. “This is unfair and this is unreasonable, and the prosecution is pandering to the public.”

Roig-Franzia and Higham reported from Washington. Paul Farhi, Abby Ohlheiser and Niraj Chokshi in Washington contributed to this report.