NORRISTOWN, Pa. — Comic legend Bill Cosby, a once-beloved father figure and moralizing African American cultural icon, was sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison Tuesday in a sexual assault case that was capped by the first celebrity trial of the #MeToo era.
In his ruling, Judge Steven O’Neill said the evidence that Cosby planned the drugging and sexual assault of his victim was “overwhelming,” based on Cosby’s own words in a civil deposition.
Once the reality of the sentence sank in, the aging comedian began to shed the trappings of his wealth. Out came his wallet, which he handed to an aide. Off came his elegant silk tie. Then he shrugged out of his bespoke dark-blue pinstripe suit jacket. He rolled up his sleeves.
There was no family member there to comfort him, so he joked and chuckled with his attorneys.
Eventually, court officials shooed everyone into the hall, but people lingered there, draped over the marble railings that ring the grand central staircase leading to Courtroom A. When Cosby, 81, finally emerged from the courtroom, he held his hands in front of him at his waist. Silver, metal handcuffs gleamed on his wrists. He clutched his skinny wooden cane awkwardly with his shackled hands.
Flanked by armed sheriff’s deputies, he disappeared through an arched doorway, bound for a holding cell — Cosby’s first stop in a journey that will take him to a state prison where he’ll be confined to a tiny cell that could have fit into the corner of a room in any of his mansions. Outside the courthouse, Cosby’s detractors hugged and cheered as a driving rainstorm blasted down.
Cosby was convicted April 26 of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for the 2004 drugging and sexual assault of Andrea Constand, a 31-year-old Temple women’s basketball official he was mentoring. Constand, a former college and professional basketball player, testified in harrowing detail at the trial about losing control of her limbs after taking pills given to her by Cosby, who served on Temple’s board of trustees and was the public face of the university. The pills, Constand said, left her unable to stop him from violating her at his suburban Philadelphia estate. At Cosby’s sentencing hearing, she asked merely for “justice.”
Before the sentence was announced, the judge quoted Constand, who in a written statement released Tuesday said Cosby “took my beautiful, healthy, young spirit and crushed it.” As the judge spoke those words, Cosby grumbled in a scoffing manner loudly enough to be heard by the audience.
Constand was the only woman whose case led to criminal charges against the comedian. More than 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault or harassment, stretching back to the 1960s, when he was launching his comedy career and became the first African American actor to star on a network television show with his role on the hit program “I Spy.” In countless media interviews, the women — including aspiring actresses and models; flight attendants; singers; and, in one instance, a doughnut-shop clerk — gave similar accounts of being dazzled by Cosby’s fame. Most said they never thought anyone would believe them, so they stayed quiet, privately harboring experiences that many said had scarred them for life.
Cosby once commanded an empire — a thriving entertainment behemoth, and the personal assistants, valets, publicists and personal chefs that kept his luxe life and businesses running. He traveled by private plane between well-appointed homes in Manhattan, suburban Philadelphia, Los Angeles and rural Massachusetts.
But on Tuesday, after he was officially designated a sexually violent predator, his power was stripped from him. He was not in command, and he was forced to listen quietly as a young prosecutor ran through a series of restrictions that will be imposed on him for the rest of his life.
Cosby, who never testified during the case, answered “Yes” over and over. Yes, he understood that he would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Yes, he understood that he’d have to let the state know about any job he took or anytime he changed residences.
During court breaks, with the judge outside the courtroom, Cosby smiled and laughed, tilting back in his chair. Cosby bantered breezily with two of his attorneys and Ed Ford, a pal from his youth who is the only friend who attended the two-day sentencing hearing.
“With all the people that he helped in Philadelphia and Washington — paying for their education, paying for the insurance — it’s almost a disgrace that none of them showed up. People don’t realize how many people he helped,” Ford said. “And the Hollywood people? They were afraid.”
On Tuesday, more than a dozen women who alleged abuse by Cosby — no longer doubting that the world would take them seriously — crowded into the ornate courtroom where Cosby finally got his comeuppance. Tamara Green, a model who says Cosby drugged and groped her around 1969 or 1970, drove alone cross-country in an RV from her home in the San Diego area. When her vehicle broke down in rural Tennessee, Green — now a lawyer — left it there, hopping a plane to Pennsylvania. Linda Kirkpatrick, who says Cosby drugged her after a tennis tournament in 1981, stepped away from her Bundt cake bakery in Costa Mesa, Calif., to witness a historic moment.
Many of the women sat with their arms around one another’s shoulders as the sentence was read. When it was clear that Cosby would not be allowed to remain free on bail during his appeal, former supermodel Janice Dickinson pumped her fist from her seat in the second row. Dickinson had testified during the trial that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in the early 1980s.
Some of the accusers who lined up in the predawn hours to get a seat in the courtroom had been willing to testify; Judge O’Neill decided against allowing their testimony. Still, just being in the courtroom felt, for some, like therapy. They have come to call each other “sister survivors.”
“This is seriously closure,” Green, one of the first women to publicly accuse Cosby of sexual assault, said in an interview. “I feel like a cloud has been lifted.”
“Justice for one is justice for all,” said Therese Serignese, now a Florida nurse who says Cosby assaulted her after giving her a quaalude in the mid-1970s, and later was involved in an on-again-off-again relationship with the comedian.
Green and Serignese are among several plaintiffs in an ongoing defamation lawsuit against Cosby, which was filed by D.C.-based attorney Joe Cammarata, who once represented Paula Jones in a sex-fueled case involving then-President Bill Clinton. The lawsuit says Cosby defamed the women by saying they were lying about their sexual assault allegations.
“Today we celebrate the rule of law,” said Cammarata, who attended the sentencing. “The jury spoke through its verdict that abhorrent sexual behavior is not to be tolerated in a civilized society.”
Even before Tuesday’s decision, Cosby was living in a prison of his own making, a shadowy world of serial infidelity and deception. By his own admission, Cosby — who says he did not drink — acquired quaaludes, a powerful sedative, to give to women with whom he wanted to have sex. He also admitted to using his vast wealth to silence women who might have exposed his secret life. It was a real-life existence dramatically out of step with the wholesome image he projected on television as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” a megahit program that broke cultural ground with its depiction of an upper-middle-class African American family.
The same year that Cosby assaulted Constand, the comedian gave his infamous “poundcake speech,” in which he chided young African Americans, saying that people were getting shot over a “piece of poundcake.” Cosby’s moralizing tone in the speech, and in other public appearances at which he criticized African Americans for their use of vernacular language and their fashion choices, led to much resentment among the very people he was hoping to inspire.
Cosby staunchly refused to admit doing anything wrong to Constand, whom his legal team sometimes described as his lover. His attorney, Thomas Mesereau, portrayed Constand as a greedy schemer who wanted to trick Cosby to enrich herself. Cosby, who did not testify at his April trial or in a previous trial that ended with a hung jury, had testified in a civil deposition that he gave Constand 1½ Benadryl pills, an over-the-counter allergy medication.
Constand’s case traces back to 2005 when she made her allegation public, asking prosecutors in Montgomery County, Pa., where Cosby’s Elkins Park mansion is located, to investigate. She later sued Cosby after authorities refused to bring charges. She settled that lawsuit for nearly $3.4 million. It wasn’t until nine years later that Cosby’s sexual conduct swelled into a full-blown national scandal after a comedian, Hannibal Buress, told an audience in Philadelphia to conduct an Internet search for the words “Cosby and rape.” His remarks, captured by chance by a Philadelphia Magazine reporter, went viral, and dozens of women came forward to tell their stories of alleged assaults.
The jurors who convicted Cosby in April heard testimony from six women who say Cosby drugged and assaulted them: Constand and five women, known as “prior bad act witnesses” whom prosecutors brought to the witness stand to establish a pattern of behavior.
After the sentencing, many of Cosby’s accusers gathered near the courthouse to read the victim impact statements they weren’t allowed to read in court.
“He spent a lifetime betraying the most vulnerable people,” said Lise-Lotte Lublin, a schoolteacher who was a model when she met Cosby in the late 1980s.
Kirkpatrick, who said she was drugged by Cosby in the early 1980s, said, “He gave me a life sentence of traumatic memories.” She also urged the public to support abolishing the statute of limitations for sex crimes in Pennsylvania.
Another woman, Stacey Pinkerton, appeared at the event to publicly recount her allegation that Cosby drugged and assaulted her in 1986.
“The 32 years of pain that I endured finally came to a conclusion this week,” said Pinkerton, who is a radio talk-show host.
Another woman, Sarita Butterfield said Cosby assaulted her at his Massachusetts estate while Cosby’s wife was in a room nearby. She urged victims to report their assaults, saying “the secret will eat you up. . . . Today, I’m free.”
“I’m sorry that he showed no remorse in the courtroom,” Butterfield said.
Cosby’s wife of more than 50 years, Camille, had waged an 11th-hour campaign to undercut Judge O’Neill in the days before the trial. The week before the sentencing, she announced that she had hired a former prosecutor to investigate her allegations that O’Neill held a grudge against the former district attorney, Bruce Castor, who had declined to charge Cosby. Castor defeated O’Neill in a long-ago race for district attorney. Cosby’s legal team has said O’Neill should have recused himself because of alleged lingering resentments from that race and because O’Neill had allegedly had a romantic relationship with a woman in Castor’s office. O’Neill declined to do so.
Camille Cosby was absent on Tuesday when her husband was sentenced. So were his three adult daughters. The court saved two full rows in the packed courtroom for Cosby’s personal use — enough to hold at least 16 people. In the first row sat an attorney, two publicists and one old friend. The second row was empty.