He’s gone from America’s Dad to convicted sex offender, and Bill Cosby will face his day of reckoning with the criminal justice system when he is sentenced this week for sexually assaulting a woman at his suburban Philadelphia home back in 2004.
Cosby, 81, is the first celebrity to be sentenced in the heated atmosphere of the #MeToo movement. He could receive up to 30 years in prison from Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who presided over two trials and has now scheduled a two-day sentencing hearing to begin on Monday.
The key questions that will soon be answered are whether Cosby will spend the rest of his life behind bars and whether he will have to begin serving any prison sentence immediately or be allowed to remain under house arrest pending the outcome of an appeal.
The disgraced entertainer was found guilty in April of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for molesting Andrea Constand, a former operations manager for the women’s basketball team at Temple University, where Cosby was an enthusiastic supporter.
Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women in the past few years, but Constand’s allegations are the only ones that became the subject of a criminal case. Cosby has denied assaulting Constand.
Both the trial in April and the earlier 2017 trial that ended with a deadlocked jury provided a kind of modern-day version of the morality plays of medieval times, as a slew of other Cosby accusers gathered in the courtroom, mingled in hallways and gave media interviews outside. Satellite TV trucks lined the front of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, and the plaza was often jammed with protesters and the curious.
Monday will almost certainly offer a similar spectacle, with Judge O’Neill likely to look out at a courtroom filled with many of the other women who have accused Cosby of assault.
The proceeding will be the most serious event so far for any major figure accused of sexual misconduct — whether that alleged conduct involves a Supreme Court nominee, media powerhouse or entertainment mogul — and not exactly the most promising time for a defendant with the cultural atmosphere now so focused on the rights of sexual assault victims.
The sentencing will offer a close-up portrait of Cosby from two dramatically different perspectives.
Prosecutors are expected to paint him as a sexual predator with a long history of preying on women by giving them pills and then waiting until they are incapacitated before sexually assaulting them. Defense lawyers are likely to emphasize his long history of charitable acts and mentoring of young people, and to cast him as a declining 81-year-old who is legally blind.
The crime of which Cosby was convicted — aggravated indecent assault — is dealt with seriously in Pennsylvania courts, and legal experts say it may be an uphill battle for Cosby to avoid a prison sentence.
“It does not take much to justify a severe sentence in Pennsylvania,” said local defense lawyer Alan J. Tauber.
According to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, the vast majority of defendants found guilty of that offense statewide were sentenced to lengthy terms in state prison, including all three of the defendants sentenced for that offense in Montgomery County in 2016, the most recent year of data.
While no recent Montgomery County cases offer identical scenarios as the Cosby case, O’Neill last year sentenced a local lawyer to 10 to 30 years in state prison for raping a female client who was incapacitated.
Cosby’s defense lawyer, Joseph P. Green Jr., is expected to try to persuade O’Neill to show mercy, and to impose a sentence that does not involve prison for an aging man with no prior record.
He also is likely to ask the judge to allow Cosby to serve at least part of any custodial sentence under house arrest or in the county jail, as opposed to state prison, and to allow him to remain free, or under house arrest, pending the outcome of an appeal.
The defense and Cosby’s wife, Camille, who attended the trial briefly in April, have challenged O’Neill’s impartiality, but O’Neill, who has a solid reputation as a judge, rejected the defense’s 11th hour bid to get him to recuse himself.
Tauber said the judge has wide latitude in sentencing, and that Cosby could help himself by expressing remorse. “It’s very important,” said Tauber. “I think it makes a big difference.”
Cosby has always maintained that the sexual contact was consensual.
Constand, who is now a massage therapist living in Canada, testified that she had become friends with Cosby, and viewed him as a mentor. She testified that she took three blue pills Cosby offered her because she trusted Cosby and believed they were some kind of an herbal relaxant. But then, she testified, she soon became incapacitated and felt his fingers inside of her, but “couldn’t fight him off.”
At a news conference after last April’s guilty verdict, District Attorney Kevin Steele said that Constand, by coming forward with her accusation, had been a “major factor” in the #MeToo movement. He said he hoped her example — and the verdict — would embolden other victims of sexual assault.
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