The sexual assault case against Bill Cosby went to the jury Wednesday as his lawyers came under heavy criticism for what some called a blatant attempt to “victim-shame” the parade of women who have leveled accusations against the 80-year-old comedian.
In the first big celebrity trial of the #MeToo era, the panel of seven men and five women began weighing charges that Cosby drugged and molested a woman at his suburban Philadelphia home 14 years ago. He says his encounter with former Temple University women’s basketball executive Andrea Constand was consensual.
Trying to keep him out of prison, Cosby’s lawyers launched a withering attack on Constand and five other women who told the jury that the former TV star had drugged and assaulted them, too.
Defense attorney Kathleen Bliss chastised Constand for “cavorting around with a married man old enough to be her grandfather.” She derided the other women as home-wreckers and suggested they made up their stories in a bid for money and fame.
She questioned the “personal morality” of one accuser and called another, model Janice Dickinson, a “failed starlet” and “aged-out model” who “sounds as though she slept with every man on the planet.”
And she slammed the #MeToo movement itself, calling Cosby its victim and likening it to a witch hunt or a lynching.
Critics said the defense team went too far.
“They’re playing on the same old myths that have been protecting perpetrators for centuries,” said Kristen Houser of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. She said the defense’s closing argument was filled with “rampant and ingrained” misconceptions about sexual assault and victim behavior.
“It was not only an attack on these six accusers,” Houser said, “it was a verbal slap to survivors all across this country.”
Gloria Allred, the lawyer for three of the women who testified, blasted the defense closing as “victim-shaming and victim-blaming” and said Cosby’s lawyers had smeared her clients in a win-at-all-costs effort at an acquittal.
Perhaps anticipating the criticism, Bliss told jurors in her closing that “questioning an accuser is not blaming the victim.”
Cosby spokeswoman Ebonee Benson echoed that sentiment when asked Wednesday about the criticism of the defense approach.
“There is no assassination of any character,” Benson said. “It is evidence that the commonwealth either selectively, deliberately or just didn’t want to take a look into. That’s simply what it is. … If anyone did any assassinating yesterday, it was the commonwealth toward our witnesses.”
The back-and-forth outside court came as jurors began their work after a two-week trial that pitted Cosby, the former TV star once revered as “America’s Dad,” against Constand, 45, who testified that he knocked her out with three pills and violated her in 2004.
Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault. His first trial ended with a hung jury less than a year ago.
The jury got the case Wednesday morning and twice had questions for the judge by late afternoon, asking for the legal meaning of “consent” and requesting to see written statements from prosecution star witness Marguerite Jackson, a former Temple colleague of Constand’s who testified that Constand spoke of framing a prominent person for the money before she went to the police about Cosby.
Judge Steve O’Neill told the jurors they had already been given the definitions of the charges, and he said they would have to rely on their memory of Jackson’s statements.
Bill James, a defense lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas, said vigorous advocacy is a defense attorney’s job, and attacking an accuser’s credibility — especially if there are no other witnesses and no physical evidence — is standard practice in sexual assault cases.
“What’s good taste and what’s aggressive representation are not always the same,” he said. “In a criminal case you have a greater obligation to go after a witness’s credibility because you’re dealing with someone’s freedom.”
In her own closing argument, Cosby prosecutor Kristen Feden rebuked Bliss for engaging in “utterly shameful” and “filthy” character assassination of Constand and the others.
“She is the exact reason why women don’t report these crimes,” Feden said.
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Associated Press writer Kristen de Groot in Philadelphia contributed to this story.