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Bill Cosby convicted on three counts of sexual assault

A jury in Pennsylvania convicted comedian Bill Cosby on all three counts of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. (Video: Patrick Martin, Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post, Photo: POOL/The Washington Post)

NORRISTOWN, Pa. — Iconic entertainer Bill Cosby was convicted on three counts of sexual assault Thursday, a decision that punctuates one of the most thundering falls from grace in American cultural history.

The courtroom rocked with emotion as the jury foreperson, a slender woman with long graying hair and glasses, said those three words — guilty, guilty, guilty — for assaulting Andrea Constand, the only woman among dozens of accusers to bring criminal charges against the disgraced comedian. Two women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault but did not testify at the trial burst out in loud sobs from their seats in one of the back rows of the cramped and tension-filed courtroom.

They were escorted from the courtroom by security officials, but their tears — tears of joy, sadness and exhaustion after a frustrating years-long struggle — still filtered into the courtroom through the closed, heavy wooden doors.

Once one of the nation’s most admired men, a pioneering African American actor beloved for his role as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on the 1980s megahit “The Cosby Show,” Cosby was recast in a suburban Philadelphia courtroom as a merciless predator and sexual deviant in the first celebrity trial of the #MeToo era of awareness about sexual assault and harassment. A 7-man, 5-woman jury took less than two days to convict Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting Constand, a Temple University women’s basketball operations director more than three decades his junior whom the comedian lured into his home with promises of mentorship. No sentencing date has been set. The conviction comes in a retrial of a 2017 case in which a mistrial was declared.

When Cosby received the message about his fate — a conviction that could send him to prison for as many 30 years, essentially a life sentence for a man his age — the old comic’s jaw muscles pulsed. He sat rigidly still.

But Cosby’s composure slipped when the jury filed out. The comedian exploded in anger as District Attorney Kevin Steele argued that Cosby has access to a private plane and should have his $1 million bail revoked because he might be a flight risk.

“He doesn’t have a plane, you a--hole!” Cosby shouted in an earsplitting roar that startled the courtroom and sent necks craning for a glimpse of his moment of distilled rage. “He doesn’t know!”

Steven T. O’Neill, the Montgomery County judge who oversaw the case, declined to revoke Cosby’s bail but ordered him not to leave his estate in nearby Elkins Park, Pa.

Cosby paused for a moment before leaving the courtroom. He slumped ever so slightly at the defense table. He leaned on a slender cane, his constant companion during the long courtroom battles. His public relations agent extended a hand. But the funnyman, the curmudgeonly father figure of TV lore, was surrounded only by people on his payroll. Attorneys and publicists encircled him, but his two adult daughters — absent throughout the trial — were nowhere to be seen. His wife, Camille, who’d appeared only for closing arguments, was not there, either.

Moments before the verdict was read, as Cosby awaited the jury’s decision, he sat motionless in a dark blue suit and red tie, staring into space. He’d often been chatty and jovial with his defense team before the court day began. But on Thursday, the face of the aging comedian — his head shaved close to his scalp — bore a grim aspect, his eyelids heavy.

Across the room, the main witness against him — Constand — stood nodding as the district attorney spoke in a hushed whisper to her. She’d slipped into the same white blazer she’d worn on the witness stand, the color contrasting with her deeply tanned face. When she took her place on the courtroom bench, she closed her eyes for a long time, sitting arrow straight as if she were meditating. Four rows behind her, Therese Serignese — a Cosby accuser who was not called to testify — dabbed tears from her face.

During 12 days of testimony, Cosby was often a silent figure. He sat at the head of the defense table beneath rows of massive brass chandeliers in a marble-clad courthouse built before the Civil War in this hardscrabble city about 45 minutes northwest of Philadelphia. But the 80-year-old’s face only infrequently betrayed his emotions as he sat at the head of the defense table with a pencil-thin wooden cane by his side. But on the final day before his case went to the jury, Cosby laughed and smirked at the defense table, then in an extraordinary moment of courtroom drama engaged in an uncomfortable stare-down with prosecutor Kristen Feden, who is less than half his age.

Cosby accusers Caroline Heldman and Lili Bernard react to the jury convicting him on three counts of sexual assault. (Video: Reuters)

Cosby, who ditched his signature lumpy sweaters for business suits with matching pocket handkerchiefs, glared at the purple carpet with a deep frown as Constand testified about the night in 2004 when she says the comic legend offered her three round blue pills that he called “your friends,” ostensibly to help her relax. But when a Temple academic adviser testified that Constand had confided that she could extort a celebrity with a false story of sexual assault, Cosby was almost giddy, smiling broadly with his face turned to the packed courtroom audience and occasionally laughing with one hand cupped over his mouth.

The academic adviser’s testimony fit into a narrative laid out by the defense in which Constand was a “con artist.” But prosecutors said it was actually Cosby who staged a con by using his fatherly television image to trick Constand and other alleged victims to trust him so that he could drug them.

Cosby was charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault in December 2015 — just before a statute of limitations was set to expire. Cosby’s reputation had suffered for years — initially because of his scolding moralizing to African American youth in the 2000s, then due to the avalanche of sexual accusers that began in late 2014 and now numbers at least 60.

Cosby, who says he is legally blind, arrived at the courthouse each morning on the arm of his public relations agent, Andrew Wyatt. On the opening day of the trial, their path was blocked when a topless protester — who’d been a child actor on “The Cosby Show” — leapt a barricade with the names of dozens of Cosby accusers scrawled on her skin in blood-red letters.

Inside the courtroom, jurors were presented with a study in contrasts. The prosecution was headed by Steele, a tall career prosecutor with neatly parted gray hair and a halting, though earnest, speaking style that prompted some in the audience to count how many “ums” he uttered. The final tally was always large.

Cosby was defended by famed Los Angeles attorney Thomas Mesereau, who cross-examined witnesses in a velvety baritone and wore his snowy white hair cut all-one-length, pageboy fashion, and draped over his ears, down to his shoulders.

Six women — Constand and five “prior bad act witnesses” — testified in detail about the entertainer drugging them in incidents that stretched from the early 1980s until 2004. Janice Dickinson, a former supermodel, testified about leaving a photo shoot in Bali because the famed comedian offered help with her singing career. Heidi Thomas, Lise-Lotte Lublin and Chelan Lasha told jurors how Cosby promised to mentor their acting careers, and put them at ease by speaking with their parents or grandparents. Another witness, Janice Baker-Kinney, said she “face-planted” into a backgammon board after accepting two quaaludes from Cosby.

Mesereau parried the testimony by smoothly unspooling a counternarrative in which Constand played the role of methodical extortionist and the other accusers were greedy opportunists supposedly intent on getting a piece of a nonexistent $100 million victim’s fund that attorney Gloria Allred had briefly proposed. Mesereau leaned heavily on testimony about a lawsuit against Cosby that Constand settled for nearly $3.4 million in 2006 after a previous district attorney declined to prosecute Cosby. Mesereau’s co-counsel, a hard-driving former federal prosecutor named Kathleen Bliss, said Thomas, who’d never achieve dreams of acting stardom, was “living the dream now.”

Prosecutors tried to dismiss the notion that Constand, who often appeared confused and naive on the witness stand, could have extorted Cosby — a celebrity with a small army of lawyers and agents to protect him. Assistant District Attorney Stewart Ryan, a baby-faced 31-year-old, mockingly referred to Constand’s supposed “master plan” while cross-examining a witness who said Constand laid out an extortion plan to her. Prosecutors also called a sexual assault expert to testify about common “rape myths,” such as the inaccurate belief that victims report their crimes quickly and cut off contact with their attackers. Constand, who waited a year to alert authorities and exchanged dozens of calls with Cosby after the alleged assault, was hammered by Mesereau with accusatory questions about those decisions.

In a sense, Cosby had already been judged even before the trial began — a dark coda to his remarkable career. Dozens of universities have withdrawn honorary degrees and several states have either abolished or extended statutes of limitation for sex crimes after lobbying campaigns inspired by the comedian’s critics.

Cosby, who grew up poor in a rough part of Philadelphia, made an indelible mark in the 1960s as the first African American to star on a network series when he was the co-star of “I Spy” and the first African American actor to win an Emmy. He cut a swinging figure in Hollywood in those days, but later reinvented himself in the mid-1980s as the wholesome gynecologist and father of “The Cosby Show.” The program became a landmark because of its depiction — almost nonexistent in the entertainment landscape of that era — of an upper-middle-class African American family.

In reality, he led a more complicated existence, and his marriage was strained by frequent infidelities. For most of the trial, the man who nurtured his father-figure image faced the greatest challenge of his life without the presence of his family to lend support. In the front row reserved for Cosby’s supporters, there were often empty seats.