ELKINS PARK, Pa. – Bill Cosby was charged Wednesday with drugging and sexually assaulting an Ontario woman at his home 12 years ago — the first criminal charges brought against the comedian out of the torrent of allegations that destroyed his good-guy image as America’s Dad.
The case sets the stage for perhaps the biggest Hollywood celebrity trial of the mobile-all-the-time era and could send the 78-year-old Cosby to prison in the twilight of his life.
The woman at the centre of the case is Andrea Constand, a Toronto massage therapist who was a Temple University employee in Pennsylvania at the time of the alleged assault.
She told police that Cosby drugged her and violated her by putting his hands down her pants at his mansion in suburban Philadelphia in 2004, but no charges were initially laid.
Cosby had no comment on his way in and out of court as he was arraigned on a charge of aggravated indecent assault, punishable by five to 10 years behind bars and a $25,000 fine.
He did not have to enter a plea and was allowed to remain free on $1 million bail for another hearing Jan. 14.
Guided by his lawyers, he walked slowly into the courtroom, using a cane and wearing a grey tweed hoodie sweater. He seemed to have trouble seeing the paperwork and finding the place to sign, and his lawyers helped him hold the pen. But he seemed at ease, laughing and chatting with his attorneys.
When the judge said, “Good luck, Mr. Cosby,” he shouted: “Thank you!”
Prosecutors accused Cosby of plying Constand with pills and wine, then penetrating her with his fingers without her consent, while she was drifting in and out of consciousness, unable to resist or cry out.
She was “frozen, paralysed, unable to move,” said Montgomery County District Attorney-elect Kevin Steele.
In court documents, prosecutors said the drugs were the cold medicine Benadryl or some other, unidentified substance.
Prosecutors also said there are probably other women who were similarly drugged and violated by Cosby. Steele urged them to come forward.
The charge was laid just days before the 12-year statute of limitations for bringing charges was set to run out.
Cosby had acknowledged under oath a decade ago that he had sexual contact with Constand but said it was consensual.
Prosecutors reopened the case over the summer as damaging testimony was unsealed in a related civil lawsuit by Constand against Cosby, and as dozens of other women came forward with similar accusations that made a mockery of his image as the wise and understanding Dr. Cliff Huxtable from TV’s “The Cosby Show.”
Many of those alleged assaults date back decades, and the statute of limitations for bringing charges has expired in nearly every case.
A lawyer for Constand said her now 42-year-old client welcomed the charges.
“She feels that they believe her, and, to any victim, that is foremost in your mind: Are people going to believe me,” said attorney Dolores Troiani. “Naturally it is troubling that it took until the eleventh hour for this day to arrive. She is hopeful that her patience has encouraged other victims to come forward.”
A statement from Troiani’s office also expressed appreciation for the “the consideration and courtesy” the district attorney’s office and police had shown to Constand during a “difficult time.”
The charge adds to the towering list of legal problems facing Cosby, including defamation and sex-abuse lawsuits filed in Massachusetts, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania.
A key question if the case goes to trial is whether the judge will allow supporting testimony from other accusers to show similar “bad acts,” even though it is too late to bring charges in most if not all of those instances. The judge could decide such testimony would be unfair.
Cosby in 1965 became the first black actor to land a leading role in a network drama, “I Spy,” and he went on to earn three straight Emmys.
Over the next three decades, the Philadelphia-born comic created TV’s animated “Fat Albert” and the top-rated “Cosby Show,” the 1980s sitcom celebrated as groundbreaking television for its depiction of a warm and loving family headed by two black professionals — one a lawyer, the other a doctor.
He was a fatherly figure off camera as well, serving as a public moralist and public scold, urging young people to pull up their saggy pants and start acting responsibly.
Constand, who worked for the women’s basketball team at Temple University, where Cosby was a trustee and proud alumnus, said she was assaulted after going to his home in January 2004 for some career advice.
Then-district attorney Bruce Castor declined to charge Cosby, saying at the time that both the TV star and his accuser could be portrayed in “a less than flattering light.” This year, Castor said the allegations in Constand’s lawsuit were more serious than the account she gave police.
After the criminal case went nowhere, Constand settled her lawsuit against Cosby in 2006 on confidential terms.
Her allegations and similar ones from other women in the years that followed did not receive wide attention but exploded into view in late 2014, after comedian Hannibal Buress mocked Cosby as a hypocrite and called him a rapist during a standup routine. That opened the floodgates on even more allegations.
Earlier this year, The Associated Press persuaded a judge to unseal documents from the Constand lawsuit, and they showed the long-married Cosby acknowledging a string of affairs and sexual encounters.
Cosby testified that he obtained quaaludes in the 1970s to give to women he wanted to have sex with. He denied giving women drugs without their knowledge and said he had used the now-banned sedative “the same as a person would say, ‘Have a drink.'”
In his deposition, Cosby said he gave Constand three half-pills of Benadryl for stress, telling her only that they were her “friends.” He said he fondled Constand, taking her silence as a green light.
“I don’t hear her say anything. And I don’t feel her say anything. And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped,” Cosby testified.
He said Constand was not upset when she left that night. She went to police a year later.
Prosecutors on Wednesday said Cosby used wine and drugs to render Constand incapable of resistance after “the much younger, athletic victim” blocked two previous sexual advances.
Her lawyer has said Constand is gay and was dating a woman around the time she met Cosby in the early 2000s.