What Bill Cosby’s conviction means for the #MeToo movement

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby arrives for jury selection for his sexual assault trial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown
McDermid Reuters/Courtesy

Related Posts

The #MeToo movement effectively rocked the Hollywood community, spreading awareness about sexual misconduct in the industry while offering a platform for women to share their personal encounters with assault, harassment and unequal treatment.

The debris of the #MeToo movement left names such as Harvey Weinstein, Casey Affleck and Louis C.K. tarnished. Yet many would agree that the original face of sexual misconduct in the industry was Bill Cosby — originally brought to fame by “The Cosby Show” of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

On Thursday, Cosby was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault, punishable by up to 10 years in jail. With the awards circuit spinning with sexual assault protests through fashion and brief acknowledgments of the powerful movement on late-night shows, Cosby’s conviction can be seen as the first legal victory of #MeToo.

And while it is an incredible feat to finally hold a successful Hollywood star legally accountable, this conviction does not simply demonstrate that the movement is “effective” — it raises innumerable disappointing realities about the influence of Hollywood over the legal system.

Yes, Cosby was found guilty. But it was only after 14 years and more than 50 other accusers that he was found guilty of drugging and assaulting one woman — Andrea Constand.

The original assault took place in January 2004. It took Constand a year to be able to confront the encounter, going to the police for the first time in January 2005. This fact alone demonstrates a problematic reality facing legal prosecution of sexual assault cases: Many victims need time to be able to tell their stories — time they are not allocated.

While a year might not seem like a terribly long amount of time, in that year, evidence dwindles and memories are not as precise. Stories are viewed as less credible because they were not immediately reported.

Many victims feel they cannot come forward, especially against high-power members of society. Higher-ups have the means to legally challenge victims with powerful attorneys. They possess the ability to pay for silence. Victims, in turn, must face a media circus in pursuing these allegations.

Sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry causes victims to face perpetrators with enormous fan bases, unstoppable resources and power that can sweep stories under the rug. This institutional fear is one that #MeToo is working to fix but that is still prevalent –– and not just for victims assaulted by celebrities.

Cosby was not charged in 2005 because the Montgomery County district attorney at the time, Bruce L. Castor Jr., believed there was not sufficient evidence. Constand instead filed a civil lawsuit against Cosby, which was settled by both parties that year.

The case was revisited in 2015, when Kevin R. Steele was elected as the new district attorney of Montgomery County and reopened the case against Cosby. After almost three more years of legal proceedings and a mistrial, Cosby was finally convicted last week.

It should not be this hard to hold someone accountable for their actions. The legal system is complex and certainly should not be rushed. But the biggest red flag of this case was the initial decision to not charge Cosby by former DA Castor. This decision, platformed on the idea that there was insufficient evidence, was emblematic of the legal system’s deeply entrenched problems.

Castor cites the fact that Constand went to a lawyer before going to the police as one of the reasons he did not pursue the case. This should not have been enough to ruin Constand’s credibility, however — many do not know the specific manner in which to go about legally pursuing a sexual assault accusation. Within our flawed system, small misunderstandings of proper procedure and a fear of confrontation prevent victims from receiving the justice they’re due.

And while Castor believed there was insufficient evidence, a conviction was made almost 14 years after the assault. A conviction means a lot for the movement. It’s a victory that can be pointed at, a historical moment in time that can be used to prompt the change that #MeToo wants to instill.

Cosby faces up to 10 years in jail. Yet, as a result of his age and his legal team’s plan to appeal the conviction, there is a chance he will serve no prison time.

We have seen this use of wealth to evade punishment before, when Roman Polanski was convicted of the rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1978 — he fled to France before his sentencing. A conviction is significant, but it is not enough if famous men found guilty are not held legally accountable. There should be no free pass for famous people in the legal system.

We need Cosby’s conviction to be enforced if we hope to achieve a true turning point in the movement. It’s not enough for celebrities’ reputations to be ruined by convictions and allegations, because it still reinforces the belief that if you are a celebrity, you are above the law.

These faces we’ve seen accused are not those of celebrities. They are not stars. They are sexual assaulters. Cosby’s conviction is a major step in this movement for better accountability within the legal system.

Now, it needs to follow through.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].