Bill Cosby might have once been America’s Dad, but after last weekend, his legacy is on a razor’s edge.
A jury chosen in Pittsburgh and sequestered throughout the trial held in suburban Philadelphia was deadlocked for several days deciding whether to convict him on charges of sexual assault, ultimately forcing a judge to declare a mistrial that will leave Cosby to deal with a myriad of questions about his personal conduct with women going back decades.
The district attorney on the case has vowed to retry Cosby on charges that he assaulted a former associate after drugging her. The fact that he wasn’t convicted isn’t likely to solve the deadlock that millions of Cosby fans have had these past few years about whether he’s actually “America’s Dad” or more like “America’s Dirty Old Man.”
As a Philadelphia native and Temple University graduate, I had great interest in this trial, particularly given my personal involvement with Cosby as a journalist working in Milwaukee in 2004, when he came to town as part of a community “call-out” tour to speak to black audiences about self-responsibility and positive messages.
Ironically, that’s the same year Andrea Constand, a Temple University athletic department employee, claimed Cosby sexually assaulted her after drugging her with pills.
The trial came after numerous women made the same allegations against Cosby, some of them far past the statute of limitations for prosecution, tarnishing the reputation of the comedian who has been world-famous for 50 years and lionized as both an artist and a philanthropist for African-American causes.
The Cosby Show cemented his reputation as a socially conscious entertainer and established his image as a positive role model who was also an advertising titan capable of selling millions of dollars of merchandise for companies looking to take advantage of his positive image.
That’s why a Father’s Day conviction would have been both ironic and damaging. But this nonresolution doesn’t really do much to settle things.
Like the cases of O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and other celebrities who underwent public criminal trials, most seem to accept that Cosby was a special case in terms of the willingness by jurors to convict a famous person.
The women who accused Cosby were also in a special case. They weren’t show business groupies who wanted to extort money from a rich and famous man. In many respects, this wasn’t a case about sex at all; it was mostly about power. The women all claimed Cosby exerted power over them by taking away their power to refuse him.
That’s what makes the trial all the more disturbing to someone like me, who grew up in North Philadelphia hearing about Cosby as a childhood hero and actually getting the chance to meet and interact with him personally over a period of months before his Milwaukee visit.
After that experience, I maintained a relationship of sorts with him over the years with occasional phone contact and invitations to his Milwaukee comedy shows. It was seductive at some point, where I began to think of myself as an authentic friend.
Later, I learned that Cosby took the same tack with numerous black journalists in the cities he visited during his “call-out” tour. He seemed to realize the impact his celebrity had on regular people, including journalists.
The reports about his alleged misconduct with women who claimed to have been drugged began with a trickle that quickly became a constant faucet after comedian Hannibal Buress’ attack on Cosby’s sanctimonious attitude toward various segments of the African-American hip-hop community went viral.
Suddenly, everybody knew Bill Cosby had been accused of doing some down-low dirty stuff. The first trial to come out of those accusations featured Constand’s emotional testimony, but only one other woman who had the same experience.
Because of a judge’s ruling, none of the multiple other claims that Cosby drugged women was considered by the jury. If those voices had been heard, some experts believe the jury would not have been deadlocked for more than 50 hours.
But this jury apparently didn’t believe it had enough evidence to convict the man they had likely all grown up revering. The district attorney has vowed to have another trial to give Constand, and all of the other alleged victims, a satisfying day in court.
Cosby hasn’t been found guilty of anything. So, according to the system, he’s still innocent of all charges.
But after what we’ve learned from this trial and all the other stories, I believe there’s little chance he will ever be considered “America’s Dad” again.
That is a verdict all by itself.