In the spring of 2017, as Bill Cosby was going to trial on sex assault charges, the morning television routines of millions of Americans centered on the faces and voices of famed anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose.
On cable television, Bill O’Reilly reigned supreme as a ratings juggernaut.
In the coming months, each of those men — and dozens of others — would be swept from their positions of power in a tidal wave of outrage over alleged mistreatment of women, a cultural moment spawned by the sudden emergence of the #MeToo movement, which spread with astonishing speed across the country. Now, as Cosby returns to a courtroom in suburban Philadelphia for a retrial that begins with opening statements Monday, the legendary comedian will be confronted not only by his many accusers, but also by the still-rippling effects of a society in the midst of a historic reckoning.
“Things are much different now,” said Steve Fairlie, a prominent Philadelphia-area defense attorney who previously worked as a prosecutor in Montgomery County, Pa., where Cosby’s retrial is being held. “The defense has to be very concerned that the prosecution is marching into battle waving this banner of #MeToo.”
The Cosby case will be the first prominent criminal trial of the #MeToo era, and the movement’s essence has seeped into almost every aspect of the proceedings. Potential jurors were quizzed about whether they’d heard of it, and not surprisingly nearly all of them had. The defense used the movement’s ubiquity in an attempt to cast aspersions on the motivations of the court, saying in a legal filing that Judge Steven T. O’Neill’s decision to allow five past accusers to testify for the prosecution “came against a backdrop of social media movements such as #MeToo.”
In anticipation of #MeToo demonstrations at the courthouse, O’Neill — who also oversaw Cosby’s original trial, which ended last June with a hung jury — has instituted new restrictions, banning the audience from wearing pins and other items that show support for either side or address social issues related to the case.
Cosby occupies a curious place in the annals of America’s evolving societal reevaluation of sex and power. In a sense, he’s the grandfather of #MeToo, a famous man buffeted by accusations of sexual misdeeds and rendered incapable of using his power and influence to suppress them — whether they’re true or not. But his ultimate place in the history of the movement is still being sorted out.
The term “Me Too” was being used at least as far back as 2006. But it didn’t gain widespread currency until October 2017, when the actress Alyssa Milano responded to published reports about sexual allegations against Weinstein by encouraging people to share the hashtag #MeToo on social media.
Cosby, whose role as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on the 1980s hit program “The Cosby Show” cemented his fatherly image, had already been to trial by then, accused of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a Temple University women’s basketball official. His sexual misconduct scandal — triggered by a fellow comedian’s onstage remarks — traced back to the winter of 2014, a full three years before Milano’s moment of social-media activism.
Some of Cosby’s accusers — now numbering at least 60 — have wondered among themselves why their accusations did not trigger a paradigm-shifting social movement.
“Nobody was knocking on the door and saying, ‘Can we support you?’ ” said Eden Tirl, who has accused Cosby of sexual harassment while she was appearing on “The Cosby Show” in 1989.
“Maybe it took a little bit of time for the shock of it to wear off,” said Linda Kirkpatrick, who alleges that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her after she played tennis against him in Las Vegas in 1981.
Kirkpatrick was one of 19 women who prosecutors had hoped to call as witnesses of past alleged misdeeds at Cosby’s retrial. Her testimony was blocked by Judge O’Neill, who limited prosecutors to selecting five witnesses from a list of the most recent accusations — all of which allegedly took place in 1982 or after.
While many of Weinstein’s accusers were well-known actresses, such as the movie star Ashley Judd, the majority of Cosby’s accusers are relative unknowns. (Supermodel Janice Dickinson, who prosecutors plan to call as a witness at the retrial, and Beverly Johnson, the first African American model featured on the cover of Vogue, are among the exceptions.) Kirkpatrick owns a bakery. One of Cosby’s accusers worked behind the counter at a doughnut shop. Others were stewardesses, bartenders and aspiring actresses or models who never became famous.
“We are not celebrities,” said Lili Bernard, a Los Angeles artist who has accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her in the 1980s when she played a role on “The Cosby Show.” “People are much more interested in knowing what a celebrity suffers than people who are not celebrities.”
As the #MeToo movement spread, Tirl found herself getting angrier and angrier. She listened to prominent Hollywood figures decry the treatment of women, but it was what she didn’t hear that bugged her. She wanted to hear someone give credit to the Cosby accusers.
“It’s great. It’s good that it’s blown up,” Tirl, a former model, said in an interview. “But it certainly has left the Cosby accusers out of that equation.”
Tirl, whose husband worked on a film that was up for numerous awards this season, found herself turning off the television in disgust during the broadcasts of awards shows, all of which featured references to #MeToo.
“I’ve been so irritated,” Tirl said. “How dare you? How dare you? How dare you not just mention us in your speech? You’re not going to mention us in these very grandiose speeches? That’s absolute hogwash.”
Still, in the close-knit universe of Cosby accusers, there has been a sense of accomplishment. They might not have sparked a hashtag, Kirkpatrick said, but they played a significant role.
“How do I feel that the world doesn’t give us credit?” Kirkpatrick said in an interview. “The truth is, we primed the pump. I don’t need a pat on the back, saying, ‘Hey, you shocked the world.’ ”
Cosby accusers tend to point to legislative triumphs as evidence that they’ve made an impact — regardless of what happens with Cosby. Spurred by the allegations made against the entertainer, California scrapped its statute of limitations on sex crimes, and Nevada and Colorado extended theirs to 20 years.
Still, the stakes feel particularly high to many of the women who have accused Cosby as the 80-year-old entertainer returns to court.
“If Cosby is convicted, I think that would be a big boost to the #MeToo movement,” Tirl said. “I think we’ve got real problems if he does not get convicted. I absolutely feel it would deter people.”
Acutely aware of the mood outside the courtroom, Cosby’s defense team is intent on disentangling their client from the social movement engulfing the nation. A person familiar with defense strategy said Cosby’s team will seek to persuade jurors that the case is about a false accusation — not about #MeToo.
Cosby is also trying to send that message. In January, his publicist alerted local journalists in Philadelphia that Cosby would be dining at an upscale Italian restaurant. When one of the reporters approached Cosby’s table, the comedian reached out to shake hands.