Cosby charged with sex assault

Kevin Steele (right), Montgomery County first deputy district attorney, announced the charges. With him is Police Chief John J. Norris of Cheltenham Township, where Bill Cosby was processed.
Kevin Steele (right), Montgomery County first deputy district attorney, announced the charges. With him is Police Chief John J. Norris of Cheltenham Township, where Bill Cosby was processed. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 01, 2016

Bill Cosby was charged Wednesday with a 2004 sexual attack on a former Temple University employee - capping a year in which similar claims from dozens of women left the entertainer's career and reputation in tatters.

The case, unveiled by Montgomery County authorities after a five-month investigation, constitutes the first attempt to prosecute the television icon once celebrated as "America's Dad." It also sets the stage for what is all but certain to be a blockbuster trial that could send Cosby, 78, to prison for a decade.

His lawyers said the charges were unsurprising, and predicted he would be exonerated. "We intend to mount a vigorous defense against this unjustified charge," they said.

But Cosby seemed worn down by the recent stream of public scrutiny, allegations, and condemnations as he shuffled Wednesday afternoon through a throng of flashbulbs and shouted questions into an Elkins Park courtroom. Far from his once-towering image as an entertainment pioneer and public moralist, he looked every inch a frail old man.

Carrying a cane and dressed in a hooded sweater, black sweatpants, and rain boots, he offered only short, routine answers as he was arraigned on a felony indecent-sexual-assault charge. As he left the room, he stopped to offer an unexpected goodbye.

"Thanks, chief," Cosby told one investigator who helped build the case against him. Then he climbed into an SUV that carried him to the Cheltenham Township police station, where he was fingerprinted, photographed, and - after posting the required 10 percent of his $1 million bail - released.

For his accuser, Andrea Constand, the charge means another chance for a public airing of the allegations she first brought to police in 2005, only to hear prosecutors at the time say the evidence was insufficient. Other accusers and victim advocates across the country claimed vindication.

"Seeing him criminally charged and having to face a trial is the best Christmas present they have ever received," said Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents 29 women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual misconduct.

In explaining the decision to reopen the investigation, Kevin Steele, Montgomery County's district attorney-elect and current first deputy, cited the flood of new accusers who have come forward alleging - in stories similar to Constand's - that Cosby drugged and assaulted them in incidents dating as far back as the 1960s. Nearly all of those allegations have proven to be too old to prosecute, though many have spawned ongoing civil suits in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California.

Constand's is an exception, though the 12-year criminal statute of limitations on her claims was set to expire within days.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, whose tenure ends this week, reopened the investigation in July after the release of Cosby's long-sealed deposition from a 2005 civil suit Constand lodged against him. In it, Cosby called Constand a liar and described in detail his sexual encounter with her, while maintaining it was entirely consensual.

"A prosecutor's job is to follow evidence wherever it takes us, and sometimes that means whenever it comes to light," Steele, Ferman's successor, said at the Norristown news conference to announce the charges. "Reopening this case was not a question. Rather, reopening this case was our duty as law enforcement officers."

Steele declined to discuss, however, whether he intended to call Cosby's other accusers as corroborating witnesses should the actor-comedian's case go to trial, or how his office might respond to an expected push from Cosby's legal team to keep the deposition out of the criminal case.

In separate legal proceedings, Cosby's lawyers have argued that the deposition was improperly released this summer and remains subject to a confidentiality agreement Cosby and Constand signed to settle her lawsuit.

Constand, now 42 and living in Toronto, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Her lawyer, Dolores Troiani, said that she and her client "have the utmost confidence" in Steele and his team.

"We wish to express our appreciation to the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, the county detectives, and the Cheltenham Police Department for the consideration and courtesy they have shown Andrea during this difficult time," Troiani said in a statement.

As one of Cosby's earliest public accusers, Constand has faced years of scrutiny. Her claim has been picked apart in multiple venues - including civil suits, extensive media coverage, and even as an eleventh-hour campaign issue in this year's race for Montgomery County district attorney.

Bruce L. Castor Jr. - who served as the county's top prosecutor during the 2005 Constand investigation and ran against Steele for the seat again this fall - repeatedly has said that he chose not to pursue the case because he believed her claims would not stand up in court.

"The statement she gave police did not provide sufficient detail on which a criminal charge could be based," Castor told The Inquirer in a September interview. "Her statement was consistent with a woman who had been drugged and couldn't remember what happened to her."

But in an affidavit they filed in support of Cosby's arrest Wednesday, prosecutors laid out a detailed account.

Constand said she first met Cosby - one of Temple's most prominent and vocal boosters - through her association with the university's women's basketball team.

She became a frequent visitor at his Cheltenham home, where he often offered her career advice over dinner - much like the caring, fatherly character he played on the eponymous television show that cemented Cosby's legacy as an international celebrity.

Constand would later tell investigators she considered him a mentor and believed they had a "sincere friendship."

During a January 2004 visit to his home, she later said, she had complained of feeling "drained." According to the affidavit, Cosby offered her three blue pills, saying they would "take the edge off." Instead, Constand later told police, the pills left her feeling "rubbery," "like jelly," and "paralyzed."

She later reported that she woke up at 4 the next morning in Cosby's home, with her sweater bunched up and her bra undone.

Clad in a robe, Cosby offered her a muffin and then walked her to the door, according to the affidavit.

A year later, Constand told her mother about the encounter, and her mother called Cosby. He admitted to "digitally penetrating her vagina," the affidavit says, and offered financial assistance.

Prosecutors on Wednesday portrayed Cosby as evasive in his descriptions of what type of pills he gave to Constand.

He told police he offered her the over-the-counter antihistamine Benadryl, but later told Constand's mother it was a prescription drug. In a four-day deposition in the civil lawsuit Constand filed against him, he testified he had acquired quaaludes with the intent of using them in consensual sexual encounters with women. He did not specify whether he had used them with Constand.

Still, said Steele, "when you look at the case, there are a number of aspects that are undisputed," including that Cosby gave Constand pills and that some form of digital penetration occurred.

"The evidence is strong and sufficient to proceed," he said. "We made this determination that it was the right thing to do."

District Judge Elizabeth McHugh scheduled a Jan. 14 preliminary hearing on the charges.

Patrick O'Connor, the lawyer who represented Cosby in the 2005 civil case and now serves as chairman of Temple's board of trustees, said he has faith the criminal justice system will exonerate Cosby, despite a bruising several months that also saw the university's arguably best-known alumnus give up his own trustee's seat because of the growing scandal.

"When both sides are heard, I'm sure justice will be served," O'Connor said.

Even as Cosby left the courtroom Wednesday - facing prison for the first time in his life and clutching at the arms of his lawyer, Brian McMonagle, and spokeswoman, Monique Pressley, for balance - it was clear he still had some supporters.

From the crowd, one man called out: "We love you, Cos."

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608@jeremyrroebuck

Staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.

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