Bill Cosby will finally face sexual assault charges. But it’s at least part politics. | WBEZ
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The Takeaway

Bill Cosby will finally face sexual assault charges. But it's at least part politics.

Pennsylvania prosecutors filed charges against actor Bill Cosby on Wednesday.

"These charges stem from a sexual assault that took place on an evening in early 2004 at Mr. Cosby's home in Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County," Kevin Steele, Montgomery County district attorney-elect, said at a press conference. "Mr. Cosby is charged with aggravated indecent assault. This is a felony of the first degree. Mr. Cosby's attorney has been notified of the charges and he's expected to be arraigned later this afternoon.”

The statute of limitations on this case was set to run out in two weeks, on January 15. Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, alleges that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in at his Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, home.

"That is the reason why they raced to make this filing," says Marci Hamilton, a leading expert in child sex abuse and rape, and a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. "What really happened in the background was this was a political decision. Bruce Castor, who was the [district attorney] when she first reported the assault by Cosby, was defeated by Kevin Steele."

Hamilton says that Steele made a campaign promise to "go after Cosby" — a promise that he is now making good on. 

"The vast majority of prosecutors are elected, and elected prosecutors often take the temperature of political waters," says Hamilton. "Apparently Castor, in 2005, concluded that, politically, he was better off protecting Cosby than bringing charges against him."

Additionally, Hamilton theorizes that changing attitudes towards sexual violence may have served as a catalyst for bringing these charges.

"I think there's a change in the rape culture in the United States," she says. "But the largest change in the last 10 years is the number of women who have come forward with the same story about Cosby."

"It's taken dozens of women across the country with the same story of being drugged and waking up unclothed to persuade prosecutors that this was not a he said-she said event. This was a pattern, and for Cosby to get into trouble, it took all of those women to come forward. That is what empowered Kevin Steele to use this as his signature comment during the campaign that defeated Castor."

If this matter goes to trial, Hamilton believes Cosby's defense team will attempt to paint this case as an isolated incident.

"They will do everything they possibly can to try to keep the jury from hearing about the other evidence of similar acts," she says. "I'm sure that they will try to play this as a he said-she said event, and that there's reasonable doubt. The problem for Cosby is that his story has saturated the media. It will be hard to find a jury that does not already have some information that would look very, very bad for him."

Due to the high profile and controversial nature of the allegations, if Steele is able to win this case, Hamilton says he won't just score political points in Pennsylvania, but all across the US.

"With dozens of women across the country saying they were assaulted by Cosby, it would be a real feather in [Steele's] cap to win this," she says. "This will mean a lot, and could actually propel him into the future."

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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