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Bill Cosby's Release Could Have A Silencing Effect On Victims, Advocates Say

Jun 30, 2021
Originally published on July 1, 2021 10:43 am

The news that Bill Cosby has been released from prison has enraged sexual assault victims' advocates and #MeToo activists.

Dozens of women going back decades accused Bill Cosby of sexual harassment and assault. In 2018, a jury found him guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home in Cheltenham, Pa., outside Philadelphia. On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the indecent assault conviction against him on a legal technicality.

"It's really sending shockwaves through our survivor community," Angela Rose, founder and president of Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, told NPR. In 2018, Rose supported Andrea Constand in the courtroom when Bill Cosby was convicted for sexual assault. "I fear that this is going to really hinder other survivors from coming forward."

The case against Cosby was seen as a milestone in the #MeToo movement. Attorney Gloria Allred, who has represented a number of alleged sexual assault victims, called the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision "devastating for Bill Cosby's accusers."

... [The court's decision] did not vindicate Bill Cosby's conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement or a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused. - Attorney Gloria Allred

Some of Allred's clients testified in criminal cases against Cosby. She wrote that, despite the decision, "this was an important fight for justice, and even though the court overturned the conviction on technical grounds, it did not vindicate Bill Cosby's conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement or a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused."

For many people, Cosby's friend and TV co-star Phylicia Rashad put salt on the wound when she tweeted enthusiastic support for the fallen comedian.

Phylicia Rashad tweeted support for Cosby then clarified

"FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!" Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, exclaimed.

She later backpedaled, tweeting, "I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth."

Rashad was recently appointed the dean of Howard University's College of Fine Arts. For Howard alumnus and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, Rashad's original comment was "astounding."

"That sets a particular tone for young women ... about what kind of reception they'd receive if they brought allegations of sexual assault at the university," Cobb told NPR.

Another Howard graduate, Soraya McDonald, agrees. McDonald, a culture critic for The Undefeated and contributor to NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, was shocked when she heard that Cosby had been released.

"My first response was really just sort of gutting disappointment once I realized this wasn't just like a rumor that was floating around on Twitter, but it had actually been confirmed," she told NPR.

Cosby was released on a legal technicality. In a "non-prosecution agreement," he was told he would not be prosecuted for criminal charges.

The seemingly swift decision reminded McDonald of the Heidi Schreck play What The Constitution Means To Me. "The theme of that work is about the different ways that women are basically left exposed and unprotected and sometimes just unseen by the Constitution," she said.

McDonald feels for the dozens of women who had "the bravery to come forward and say what happened to them, to testify in court, you know, to go through so much, just to see ... some measure of justice ... and then just have it be vacated. You know, it is devastating."

Women In Film, Los Angeles called Cosby's release "a setback in the fight for justice for sexual assault survivors." The statement from the nonprofit urged people "in a position of power in the screen industries to put an end to the culture of silence and acceptance that allowed Cosby to prey on so many women."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Bill Cosby walked out of prison yesterday after almost three years inside. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated his conviction on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman, Andrea Constand, at his home years earlier. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has been following this story. Good morning, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What are we hearing from the other women who say Cosby assaulted them?

BLAIR: They are stunned and disappointed. To a lot of them, it's hard to understand how, after all of these women have come forward, after a jury found Cosby guilty, that he could still be released on a legal technicality. They're also concerned about what the news will do to victims of sexual assault. I spoke with Angela Rose, who is the head of a nonprofit called PAVE, which stands for Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment. Here's what she said.

ANGELA ROSE: I fear that this is going to really hinder other survivors from coming forward. And so, you know, this case, the Bill Cosby case, was truly one of the first cases in the #MeToo movement. And it really paved the way for other survivors of high-profile, influential perpetrators to speak out. So I don't want that to be lost.

BLAIR: Rose was in the courtroom supporting the alleged victims who testified in the Andrea Constand trial. She says the news of Cosby's release is like a knife in the heart for them.

KING: At the same time, there were some people who publicly expressed support for him - interestingly, his costar on "The Cosby Show," Phylicia Rashad, who for many years said very little about all of this.

BLAIR: Yes. Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby's wife on TV for many years, was at first very enthusiastic. She tweeted, finally, a terrible wrong is being righted. A miscarriage of justice is corrected. She later backpedaled and sent another tweet saying she supported survivors of sexual assault coming forward and that her earlier post was, quote, "in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth."

KING: And I imagine that was because - I mean, I saw this happen yesterday. People online were outraged.

BLAIR: Very much so. Rashad was recently appointed dean of Howard University's Chadwick Boseman College of Fine Arts. And a number of Howard alumni feel the comment was really inappropriate. Soraya McDonald is a Howard graduate and culture critic for ESPN's The Undefeated. She says Rashad's comments could have a chilling effect on students.

SORAYA MCDONALD: You know, I try to imagine - if you're a person who has been sexually harassed or has been sexually assaulted, you know, by a fellow student who's also in the college of fine arts and you think - well, should I go to Dean Rashad about this? - I can't imagine thinking that, you know, that is someone who is going to support you.

KING: I wonder - you know, as we heard earlier, this was one of the first high-profile cases of the #MeToo movement. Is this a setback for that movement? Can we say?

BLAIR: Some activists are saying, yes, this is a setback. And we can see it's lost some steam with the general public. But the champions of the movement are still at it. Attorney Gloria Allred, who has represented some of Cosby's accusers, held a press conference yesterday. She made it very clear that she is moving forward with a civil case against Bill Cosby in Los Angeles County. She's representing a woman who claims Cosby sexually assaulted her when she was 15 years old. Cosby has denied causing any harm to her.

KING: NPR's Elizabeth Blair. Thank you, Elizabeth.

BLAIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.