Will Bill Cosby Ever See The Inside Of A Prison Cell?

Photo: Victoria Will/AP Photo.
In another unsealed court deposition, Bill Cosby recounts how he pursued younger women. Cosby explains how he used Quaaludes in his sexual conquests, behavior he tries to make excuses for but which leads me to one conclusion — that Bill Cosby is a rapist.

As recently as January of this year, fully 41% of Americans said they weren’t sure if Cosby was guilty — despite hearing from dozens of women who publicly accused Cosby of eerily similar and profoundly disturbing patterns of rape and sexual harassment. But now that Cosby has echoed the details of those claims (quaaludes, alcohol, younger women) in two separate depositions, there is little doubt that he's losing in the court of public opinion. And yet, even if he's guilty, Cosby will probably never see the inside of an actual courtroom for his alleged crimes.

Criminal charges and civil suits are both subject to statutes of limitations. For civil suits, those time limits are usually pretty short. Both of the depositions unsealed so far have stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Andrea Costand, who alleged that Cosby drugged and raped her in Philadelphia in 2004. Costand filed suit the following year, in a case in which her attorneys cited 13 other “Jane Does." Cosby settled the case in 2006.

Cosby will probably never see the inside of an actual courtroom for his alleged crimes.

Yet while Costand’s suit fell
within the Pennsylvania statute of limitations for most civil suits — which gives a two-year period to file — many other of Cosby’s alleged survivors have now missed that window. Some are trying to get around it by filing a defamation lawsuit, saying that Cosby slandered them by saying they lied about him — but even then they could recover only “reputational damages” and not any damages related to his purported assaults and the pain and suffering he is accused of causing.

The bar for criminal charges is even higher. For instance, Costand provided evidence to the police to pursue a criminal case against Cosby, but the cops never filed charges. This is, sadly, not an aberration. Although, according to data from the Justice Department, 54% of rapes are not even reported to police, among those that are, only one out of four leads to an arrest. Of those, only one out of four arrests leads to a conviction. In other words, according to data analysis conducted by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), out of every 100 rapists, just three will ever spend a single day in prison.

Of every 100 rapists, just three will ever spend a single day in prison.

Why? It’s not just the statutes of limitations — in most states, they’re longer for criminal rape charges than for civil suits. The statute of limitations for criminal rape is 12 years in Pennsylvania; in New York, for instance, there isn’t any statute of limitations for first-degree rape.

The larger issue is that rape and sexual assault are hard to prosecute. For instance, in the case of Costand, the county prosecutor at the time has said he believed her allegations were credible, but he still didn’t charge Cosby with a crime because there was no corroborating evidence. The presumption of innocence is the bedrock principle at the core of the American justice system. But that doesn’t mean it’s always just, especially in the case of serial rapists.

And, as history shows, justice may be especially unlikely when the serial rapist is a rich and powerful man. Just as our criminal-justice system handles white defendants differently from Black defendants, wealthy defendants are treated differently from the poor. Poor defendants charged with murder are, for instance, more likely to be sentenced to death than middle-class or wealthy defendants charged with murder. The quality of legal representation afforded by wealth plays a part, as do our cultural presumptions. The rich are more readily presumed innocent, and good in general, than the poor.

Justice may be especially unlikely when the serial rapist is a rich and powerful man.


In 2013, a wealthy teenager in Texas was driving his car with a blood-alcohol level over three times the legal limit when he swerved off the road and crashed, killing four bystanders. During sentencing, his defense team put a psychologist on the stand who testified the young man suffered from “affluenza” — psychological problems afflicting children of privilege. It’s unknown to what extent the testimony, or the defendant’s wealth in general, played in the case, but instead of sentencing the guilty teenager to 20 years in prison, as prosecutors had requested, the judge ordered 10 years' probation instead.

And then there’s the fact that the wealthy who are convicted of so-called white-collar crimes not only receive lighter sentences but stay in cushier prisons as well — despite the fact that, for instance, financial crimes often have many more victims than, say, petty drug possession. Even the fact that we call them “white-collar crimes” reveals the class hierarchy embedded in the system.

Bill Cosby, by my understanding of the term "rape," is a rapist. The fact that, despite so many credible accusations by so many credible women, we continued to believe his version of events — and that he will nonetheless likely never face punishment or serious consequences — should upset us almost as much as the heinous crimes he stands accused of.

This story was updated on July 23, 2015.

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