The Rise, Fall and Vacated Conviction of ‘America’s Dad,’ Bill Cosby
On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure are tired. Really, really tired.
After three years in prison, serial rapist Bill Cosby was released Wednesday after Pennsylvania's highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction on a procedural technicality.
The man we once called “America’s Dad” is a national disgrace. But like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, he still has plenty of fans who defend him.
Why is it so difficult to let go of our Black cultural icons even when they destroy their own legacies?
In light of the countless wrongful convictions of Black citizens who will never walk free, what can the Cosby case tell us about the role of money and fame in our justice system, and why is it important to remain steadfast in our refusal to let them back into our media ecosystem?
Although more than 50 women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, only one was granted a measure of justice. In 2018, Cosby was found guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home in 2004. He was sentenced to 3 to 10 years.
But now, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has declared Bill Cosby a free man after his attorneys successfully petitioned for his conviction to be overturned based on a “due process mistake,” Toure explains.
Apparently, Bruce Castor Jr., the district attorney who served in Lancaster County in the mid-’00s, made an unwritten agreement with Cosby that, if he testified in another case (a civil suit also brought by Constand), he would not be prosecuted. (Incidentally, he was one of the defense lawyers in Trump’s second impeachment trial.)
By 2016, a new D.A. was in charge, who decided to prosecute Cosby anyway.
“Just to be clear, the court is not saying there’s new evidence that he did not rape and drug these people. He has not been exonerated,” says Toure.
Danielle points out that Cosby’s accusers –– many of whom were featured on the cover of New York Magazine in 2015 –– all have “eerily similar stories.”
They’re who she’s thinking about now, who “after decades of fighting and the bravery it takes to accuse such a powerful man,” are watching him walk free.
“Honestly, it makes me sick,” she says. “I don't care that he's 80-something years old and he only probably has a few years left. None of those things matter to the victims who he caused significant trauma.”
Episode Highlights –– We Are Tired
Survivor Lili Bernard: from self-blame to bravery
At first, he didn't understand Bernard’s claim that Cosby raped her twice. But “it's important to ask questions and understand details and context and actual stories,” Toure says.
Cosby was a mentor to Bernard, who guest-starred on “The Cosby Show” in 1984. The first assault took place after he took her out to dinner. She began to feel ill, which she blamed on the food at first. She now knows she was drugged. She fell asleep and woke up in Cosby’s home. She woke up, embarrassed, and went home, still feeling unwell.
A year later, they went out to dinner again, and he drugged her again. When she started to feel sick, Bernard realized: It's not me, it's you, Toure explains.
“The first time, she blamed herself. The second time, she put it together.”
With enough money, a technicality can trump accountability
Bernard is, of course, just one of the many women who came forward to accuse Cosby of sexual assault.
“I know many men in the entertainment industry who were like, yeah, I've been hearing stories about him from the '70s and '80s. This is how he got down for a long time,” says Toure.
But he points out that, as a legal matter, it is crucial for our justice system to only convict based upon real evidence. It’s not enough for our government to claim someone is bad.
“I think a lot of Black people, especially Black men, have been put in prison because the government was able to say he's a bad guy. So I don't want folks to say a due process mistake is some bullshit. Because it's not. It's important. But having accountability for what he did is incredibly important as well.”
“Isn't it funny how rich men seem to get off on technicalities?” Danielle asks.
Not funny, ha-ha. But absurd and wrong and sad.
Judges and juries nationwide often “have very little evidence to throw the book at Black and Brown men for 20, 30 or 40 years,” she adds.
“But you need all the evidence in the world to come up against rich and/or white men, like Derek Chauvin. It always seems convenient that the system, in terms of its technicalities, seems to only work when you are a person with great fame.”
Cosby is definitely disinvited from the barbecue
As the story broke, one of Cosby's attorneys said: This is a great day for Black America.
“I was like, motherfucker, what? Excuse you,” says Danielle. “I had long since wanted that man's card revoked, never to be returned. Don't make this seem bigger than it is, which was a big fucking oops by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”
Toure thinks the issue is complicated by Cosby’s fame. When he was behind bars, the public was compelled to look at him in a new way. They were more likely to believe his accusers. But now, his fans will feel free to express their love and admiration for him.
And already we’re seeing news commentators, hosts and analysts attempting to be “fair and balanced” in what they say about Cosby, in spite of the fact that he was definitely not exonerated.
The Pennsylvania court’s decision did nothing to discredit any of the dozens of victims. But the legal technicality that freed him also means the DA will be unable to prosecute Cosby again.
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In the 1970s, Toure’s parents were huge fans of Bill Cosby’s stand-up comedy, so he has listened to a lot of it.
“He was an extraordinary storyteller, at least in his heyday,” Toure says. “He could just sit on stage and tell a story about how his father fed him and his brother chocolate cake for breakfast, and it lasted 20 minutes. It was hysterical, and it was engaging. And it was real. He didn't even need to curse.”
For Danielle, Cosby was a grumpy-but-loveable sitcom dad. But its spinoff about life at an HBCU, “A Different World,” made the biggest impact.
“I went on a Black college tour when I was getting ready to go to college, because I wanted to be Denise in “A Different World,” she says. “Because I got to see what college looked like. And it looked cool as hell.”
We've seen lots of Black families on television since, “but nothing close to that iconic,” Toure notes.
“It would be impossible given the modern television landscape that is so bifurcated. At that time, we really only had three or four options at eight o'clock on Thursday night. So they had a chance to become iconic, and they surely did.”
Cosby’s still canceled
While he can appreciate the profound influence of “The Cosby Show” on our culture, Toure doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to laugh at Cosby’s comedy ever again.
“It's just so gross,” he says. “And I know that he's going to want to go on tour.”
Toure notes that Cosby toured shortly before his trial and conviction. Now, “he needs to be out in the light and the public more than ever. He will go out, probably starting later this year, and do his comedy and be like, I'm free; I'm exonerated. I'm the man. You love me and I love you. Hello, friend.”
Danielle is having none of it.
“Let me tell you something. That's a friend I don't want to be united with. He would not be getting a red cent from me whatsoever. No, thank you, and goodbye.”
They both agree that Cosby’s legacy is irrevocably tarnished.
“When you learn something different, you're supposed to be able to adapt to the new knowledge you've been provided,” Danielle says.
Just as Toure can't look at Bill Cosby the way he used to, it’s the same with R. Kelly and Michael Jackson. He’ll never forget Dream Hampton's docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” or the heartbreaking chronicle of sexual abuse in “Leaving Neverland.”
“The thing that destroys me,” says Toure, “is that the documentary did an excellent job of showing how the entirety of Jackson’s life was constructed. This wasn't a side hobby. This was the thrust of his life: he was constantly acting like a child and Neverland Ranch was this giant trap. An amusement park for children. It was all about luring children.”
Danielle wonders how Jackson got away with it for so long.
“How many stories do you need to hear about this man who is clearly a predator? What grown man is living at an amusement park, and wants to be hanging out with 10 and 12 and 13-year-old boys? And what parent says, great –– go ahead and sleep over at Michael's house?”
The problem, says Toure, was that “barely anyone believed it.”
‘The story they wanted us to believe’
Toure points out that investigative journalist Diane Dimond was one of the very few people in the media who took these allegations seriously.
“I thought she was a kook,” he admits. “And I feel bad, because I was the lead writer about Black music for “Rolling Stone” during the time when Michael Jackson was being repeatedly accused.”
And although his beat wasn’t criminal justice, he “never took those allegations seriously enough,” Toure adds. “I didn't believe it. I think I didn't want to believe it. I wanted to believe what Michael said.”
For a long time, he resisted the truth because “Michael Jackson had been in my life for as long as I could remember,” he says. “I grew up watching the Jackson 5 cartoons. I remember “Off the Wall,” the day it came out. The Jackson 5 Afro thing –– as a little boy, if somebody said, your Afro looks like the Jackson 5, that was the highest compliment. And I just don't remember a time when Michael wasn't on the highest stage.”
Danielle’s feelings were initially mixed about Michael Jackson, too.
“He just seemed like such a broken human being, from such a destructive and traumatic upbringing,” she says.
“I didn't, at that time, associate the way that he was acting and showing up as a pedophile, versus someone who seemed really stuck and traumatized at such a young age, who used his wealth and fame as a way to relive the part of his life that was taken away from him.”
“That's the story they wanted us to believe,” says Toure.
From Cosby to Chauvin, ‘accountability’ is elusive
The Cosby case makes Danielle think about “all the times wrongfully convicted people should have been exonerated, should have been let out of jail, and were not.”
Toure says that now, “at a time when we are moving toward legalizing marijuana nationwide, and there are hundreds of thousands of people in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses, why they are in prison and Bill Cosby is not, is offensive.”
That sad truth is particularly difficult to accept in the wake of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s sentencing last Friday.
Judge Peter Cahill sentenced Chauvin to 22 and 1/2 years for the murder of George Floyd. State guidelines prescribed a 12 and 1/2-year sentence, but Cahill cited Chauvin’s “abuse of a position of trust and authority and also the particular cruelty” of his crime.
However, the sentence is significantly shorter than the 30 years prosecutors requested. Chauvin could be paroled after serving two-thirds of his sentence, about 15 years.
“We tell ourselves this is accountability,” says Danielle. “How is that accountability when there are Black and Brown people serving 30 years for a fucking dime bag?”
The weight of ‘two justice systems’
Toure is feeling down, “because the weight of all this is so much,” he says. “We really do have two justice systems.”
But they’re not just Black and white, he adds.
“There’s also a class structure that has access to more lawyers and more lawyering. You get the amount of lawyering you can pay for. Cosby's lawyers were able to keep fighting the case over the years he's been in prison, whereas a poor person would have had to stop paying those bills.”
“It all comes back to fame and money,” says Danielle.
We'll be back next week –– if there's a country –– “with another undeserving motherfucker that I'm sure is going to be leaving prison,” she adds.
Check out the frustration, rage and absurdity that was the 2020 election on democracy-ish as Danielle Moodie and Toure discuss the current state of the political climate and our country from a Black perspective.