Earlier this week, federal district court judge Eduardo C. Robreno granted the Associated Press’s motion to intervene and unseal a number of documents from the 2005 civil suit Constand v. Cosby, in which Andrea Constand sought to hold Bill Cosby accountable for sexually assaulting her some years prior (the case was subsequently settled out of Court). Among these documents were excerpts of a deposition taken in the case, in which Bill Cosby admitted to purchasing Quaaludes to give to “young women that [he] wanted to have sex with[.]”
Although Bill Cosby objected to the motion to unseal the documents — citing concerns of “privacy” and “embarrassment” — the Court overruled his objections, holding that “[Cosby] has pervasively failed to articulate any specific, cognizable injury that would result from the documents’ release to the public, and therefore has not carried his burden of showing ‘good cause’ [for why the documents should remain sealed] … Accordingly, the court will overrule defendants objections and order the documents to be unsealed forthwith.” In explaining its denial of Cosby’s objections, the Court noted that “[a]lthough of course intense media scrutiny into one’s private matters would almost always cause embarrassment,” Cosby failed to show how his public embarrassment would be “‘particularly serious’ at this time and in the context of this case.” The Court reasoned that the allegations in this case were already a part of the public domain, and a number of other persons have come forward alleging similar conduct by Cosby.
Although public figures – such as Cosby – do not surrender their right to privacy on the courthouse steps, this case was not “about [Cosby’s] status as a public person by virtue of the exercise of his trade as a television or comedic personality. Rather, [Cosby] has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education and crime. To the extent that [Cosby] has freely entered the public square and ‘thrust himself into the vortex of these public issues,’ he has volunteering narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.” In other words, because Cosby “responded publicly with denials as to the veracity if these claims and questioned the possible motives if his accusers [… he joined] the debate about the merits of the allegations against him, [and thus] further diminished his entitlement to a claim of privacy.”
In granting the motion to unseal the documents, the Court emphasized that the request for release of the documents was “legitimate,” as the documents were not sought for the purpose of “commercial gain or prurient interest in exposing the details of [Cosby’s] personal life. Nor [was the request] simply … a matter of collateral to the issues in this lawsuit. Rather, the stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist, and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations concerning improper (and perhaps criminal) conduct, is a matter as to which the AP – and by extension the public – has a significant interest.”
This most recent development in the Bill Cosby scandal is important for a number of reasons. The Court’s decision and the subsequent release of documents sheds light on the importance of (1) media awareness and first amendment principles, (2) alternatives to criminal prosecution where such traditional mechanisms of enforcement are unavailable, and (3) combating the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and myths surrounding rape victims’ narratives.
More than 45 women have now come forward alleging that they were drugged and raped by Bill Cosby. Most (but not all) of these women will not be able to pursue traditional means of justice (i.e., criminal prosecution or filing a civil lawsuit), as many jurisdictions do not provide for extended civil and/or criminal statutes of limitations for rape of an adult.
The entire purpose of statute of limitations is to prevent stale claims or the bringing of claims where evidence of the underlying matter no longer exists. Although common sense would lead one to believe that the traditional reasons underlying SOLs would be abrogated in light of a perpetrators’ confession, this is generally not the case (with a few exceptions, such as Indiana, which recently passed “Jenny’s Law,” and now provides an exemption to the criminal SOL where the perpetrator confesses to the crime).
That said, even if Cosby’s admission doesn’t revive the statute of limitations in a particular case, there may be other potential repercussions. For instance, Bruce Castor, the former district attorney who oversaw the 2005 investigation against Cosby (which did not result in any charges) told MSNBC that he thinks Cosby’s deposition could support criminal perjury charges: “I can tear that deposition apart, and anything that I can prove is a material lie would still be subject to a perjury investigation and prosecution.” He added that “a good argument can be made” that the statute of limitations hasn’t run out because the deposition had been sealed until this week.
Nonetheless, Cosby’s admission likely will not persuade his staunch supporters and those who disbelieve victims as a matter of course. Our society places a great stigma on individuals who come forward alleging rape, especially when the perpetrator is a well loved public figure such as Bill Cosby. Many will continue to look for reasons to disbelieve the survivors, regardless of the evidence. Indeed, even with this admission, some will continue to accuse the victims of lying, or believe that they “got what they deserved” for agreeing to be alone with Cosby in the first place, or else argue that Cosby’s admission is not, in fact, evidence of his crimes (by, for example, arguing that his statement merely admits that he obtained the Quaaludes for women he wanted to have sex with, and that is not evidence that he drugged them or raped them).
Some individuals will likely change their stance on Cosby’s innocence as a result of this newly unsealed testimony. However, this too evidences a larger problem within our society. As Leigh Goodmark (director of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law Gender Violence Clinic) aptly summarized, “[w]hy is it that 25 women’s stories are not evidence, but the one guy with the motive to lie, that’s evidence?” It is not a coincidence that this recent firestorm of media attention to Cosby’s sexual violence sparked not from believing the survivors or even maintaining awareness of prior allegations against Cosby, but instead, originated with a joke by male comedian Hannibal Burress. As Goodmark noted, this is “indicative of a larger problem we have with gender violence in the United States: we don’t believe women.”
We do not know for certain what, if anything, will result from Cosby’s admission. We do know, however, that justice looks different to different victims. While many may not feel vindicated by the public exposure Cosby now faces, for some, Cosby’s admission will provide a measure of much needed closure. As Viktoria Kristiansson (attorney advisor for AEquitas) stated: “When I heard this information, I immediately thought of the survivors who have, for some of them for decades, suffered from a tremendous amount of victim-blaming, the result of the myths and misconceptions surrounding sexual assault that the public has about sexual assault…Hearing what essentially amounts to an admission probably and hopefully helps those survivors feel just a little better.”