She wore tortoise-shell-rimmed glasses and a crisp, white shirt and delicate, turquoise earrings that swung as she walked. He wore a pale peach necktie and a white pocket square and stood accused of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
Janice Baker-Kinney hadn’t been in the same room as Bill Cosby since 1982. Did she ever think she would see him again, except for, maybe, on television? Surely she did not believe she would see him like this: From her vantage point on the witness stand in the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, as she testified at his criminal trial.
For decades, she did not even believe that what Cosby had done to her was rape. She did not believe she had anyone to blame but herself. She did not believe there was a soul in the world who carried the shame and the guilt that she felt. Who could look at Cliff Huxtable and saw what she saw.
Baker-Kinney told the jury that 33 years prior, she took two pills from Cosby. She quickly became dizzy and passed out. She woke up to feel him “fondling” her, his hand inside a shirt she did not remember unbuttoning, moving down toward pants she did not unzip. She was in bed, next to Cosby. They were both naked and she felt “a sticky wetness between my legs” and “like I had had sex the night before.”
Feeling “mortified,” she got herself dressed. All she wanted was to go home. But, she said, “Mr. Cosby stopped the door before I could leave. And he looked at me very seriously and said, ‘Now this is just between you and me.’” He put his index finger to his lips, underlining his instruction: Shh.
Baker-Kinney was “nervous, anxious,” she testified, and when she feels that way, “I kind of have a tendency, sometimes, to make jokes or get snarky.” She said to Cosby, “Well, I wasn’t planning on alerting the media.”
In fact, she told almost no one. “I kept it pushed down inside me,” she said, until late 2014, when she watched as woman after woman came forward to describe the sexual violation they’d experienced at Cosby’s hands. After months of averting her eyes from these articles, Baker-Kinney relented and read one.
“It was like a light bulb went on over my head,” she said. “Because I realized: That sounds like what happened to me.”
Baker-Kinney noticed that the woman in this particular story, who was represented by high-profile women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, had a case that was within the statute of limitations. “I thought about, what can I do to help this human being?” She called Allred’s office to say, “I’d be willing to testify if I can help this woman.”
So on April 23, 2015, Baker-Kinney did alert the media. At a press conference led by Allred, alongside two other Cosby accusers, Baker-Kinney went public with her story. Three years later, she was called to testify at Cosby’s retrial. (His first trial, held the previous June, ended in a mistrial.)
The allegations at hand were those of Andrea Constand, a former director of basketball operations at Temple University who says Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2004. Hers is, to date, the sole claim against Cosby to result in criminal charges.
Baker-Kinney was one of five “prior bad acts” witnesses enlisted by the prosecution. These women, all of whom say Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them, were a key part of the prosecution’s effort to depict Cosby as a serial predator whose encounter with Constand was neither consensual nor a one-off incident but rather was one in a multitude of similar assaults — a signature crime.
In other words, Baker-Kinney was there to say, “Me too.”
The jury deliberated for only 13 hours before returning a verdict: Guilty, guilty, guilty.
On April 26, Cosby was convicted on all three counts. Aggravated indecent assault is a felony under Pennsylvania law, and each count carries a maximum sentence of ten years. For the time being, his prison is more poetic than literal: He was released on house arrest, instructed to stay in the Cheltenham home where his assault of Constand took place.
Reached by phone the morning after the verdict, Beth Ferrier — one of the first women to ever go public with her allegations, she was Jane Doe No. 5 in Constand’s 2005 civil suit against Cosby — said, “It’s one of those Moses splitting the sea moments.”
When Ferrier heard about Cosby’s post-verdict outburst — he called district attorney Kevin Steele an “asshole” — she felt like she was seeing the man she knew. “That’s who Cosby is. That’s why we were so frightened of him. He could turn on a dime. He was the most sweet, charming man I ever met, and probably the most violent, criminal-minded person I ever met.”
At his first trial last April, the jury deliberated for more than 50 hours and couldn’t reach a verdict. What changed?
“I know we’re all going to talk about ‘me too,’ ‘me too,’ Ferrier said. “But the Jane Does were there long before this Me Too stuff… We were the ‘Me Too’s moving forward. We just didn’t have a name for it yet.”
While the first trial was less than a year ago, it was, culturally speaking, as distant from the present as could be. It would be four more months before the searing investigations by the New York Times and the New Yorker into Harvey Weinstein’s reportedly rampant sexual abuse came out, and almost five before “Me Too,” Tarana Burke’s 2006 movement, was revived, in hashtag form, by actress Alyssa Milano.
What followed was an unprecedented reckoning for abusive men in power across so many industries — from arts to tech to media to politics to food to manufacturing to comedy to film and on and on — it felt, almost, like parody. How exactly #MeToo factored into the jurors’ worldview may never be known, though on the first day on jury selection, only one of the 120 potential jurors interviewed had never heard of the movement.
Only one prior bad acts witness, Kelly Johnson, was allowed to testify at Cosby’s first trial. The second time around, the prosecution asked for as many of 19 accusers be permitted to take the stand. Judge Steven T. O’Neill allowed five, still a considerable number. They testified, one by one, after the prosecution’s first witness: Dr. Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychologist who studies behaviors of sexual assault victims, who coolly dismantled the rape myths that have weighed on victims for generations and haunt so many still.
Though it is impossible to quantify this sort of thing, it seems possible — probable, even — that this jury was more ready to absorb what Ziv had to say, coming as she did after months of sexual violence survivors speaking publicly, day in and day out, about what they’d endured in seemingly every workplace and walk of life.
And it seems the same could be said of the women of #MeToo, starting with the glittering movie stars who disclosed the truth about Weinstein, a once-almighty producer who made his body a barricade between aspiring actresses and the careers of their dreams. Would they have been so vocal, so daring, had groundwork not been laid by the women before them? By, for instance, the 13 women who came forward during the 2016 presidential election with claims that Donald Trump had physically violated them?
And would Trump’s accusers have felt empowered to speak had a precedent not been set years prior by the Cosby women, who were saying “Me Too” not just before the hashtag but before Burke’s movement even began, back in 2005 when Constand filed her civil suit against Cosby, when 13 Jane Does were ready to testify?
One assault is enough to derail a victim’s career, to destroy a life, even. But to do the reverse — to hold an assailant accountable — it appears that one is never enough. One is just the beginning. It takes one after another after another, risking and hoping and usually failing, passing the fight from one to the next like some kind of burning baton. Sometimes it takes letting go of the possibility of justice for yourself and focusing, instead, on justice for someone else — of letting that be a proxy for the justice you can never have. And there are perhaps no people out there who understand that quite like the Cosby survivors.
Their earliest accusation is from 1965. The most recent is from 2008. Dozens litter the decades in between. Statutes of limitation expired quick as flames devouring a match. They told who they could or no one at all. Rarely did they tell the police. They kept their nightmares to themselves, until the fall of 2014, when, in a turn of events too fortuitous for fiction — a two-minute bit in a stand-up set went viral — they spoke out, most for the first time. And then they discovered each other. Out of strangers, a sisterhood.
Every survivor interviewed for this story, as well as many others who have spoken to different news outlets, referred to each other as “sisters.” And while they’ve made joint media appearances on Dateline and New York magazine, these only scratch the surface of their union. There are Cosby survivors who communicate regularly by phone and text and email and Facebook message, who have met and bonded with each others’ children. Several have teamed up to reform laws around sexual assault to make justice more possible for the victims who will come after them.
That Cosby has been accused by more than 60 women of sexual violence is common knowledge by now. Who hasn’t heard about the allegations? Who hasn’t seen the news stories, coming day after day, as reliable as the weather report? For the first trial in June 2017, jurors had to be bused in from Pittsburgh — 300 miles away from the courthouse in Norristown, Pa., give or take — to avoid pulling from the local pool that had been inundated with Cosby-related political attack ads.
So it is easy to forget that, as recently as three and a half years ago, virtually no one was talking about Cosby’s reported history of violence. That in August 2014, Cosby was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where he mocked the host for his Cosby impression. To find dissent, you’d have to be reading Gawker or Newsweek, each of which published stories that year about the allegations against Cosby.
While there was a small burst of publicity in 2005 and 2006 surrounding Constand’s police report and subsequent civil suit, those pieces faded from public memory with such speed that when Ta-Nehisi wrote a massive critical essay about Cosby’s black conservatism for The Atlantic not two years later, he mentioned the allegations only once — in a parenthetical, near the end of the nearly 7,000-word piece.
And before 2005: Not a word.
Patricia Steuer says she was drugged and raped by Cosby in 1978 and 1980. The people she told at the time — two friends, the man who would become her husband — basically told her she was better off just letting it go. “The message I got was, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you, but it won’t do any good to come forward. No one will believe you,'” she said. “So I just stopped talking about it for 25 years.”
“Someone else said to me recently it felt like solitary confinement,” she said. “That’s exactly how that felt all those years.”
Like Steuer, each of these Cosby survivors remained totally alone, “isolated,” as Baker-Kinney put it at the trial, in her trauma and her horror, each thinking she was the only person who was victimized by one of the most beloved father figures in American popular culture. To know one another now is to have found a source of amazement, strength, and camaraderie — even as their relationships are fraught and complicated and unwieldy, as those among 60-plus independent adults are bound to be.
These women talk about each other like they’ve been drafted into an army, whose full ranks they will almost certainly never know, to defend a nation they never asked to join. The only thing they all have in common is this one man and his violence, of stumbling into the path of his apparently insatiable depravity.
As Lili Bernard, an activist and artist who says Cosby drugged and raped her in the 1990s when she was a guest star on The Cosby Show, put it, “Our perpetrator is this awful man, but this beautiful thing came out of it.”
“It was such a relief not to feel alone,” Steuer said. “To be able to talk to another survivor who’d been through the same thing. Over the years, you begin to question your sanity about the whole thing, if you’re alone with your thoughts about it, and your feelings.”
Victoria Valentino, who says she and a friend were drugged and assaulted by Cosby in 1970, said meeting other survivors was like undergoing a de-gaslighting process. “When you speak about things that have been so traumatic that you have stuffed away for so long, that begins to trigger all of your PTSD that you didn’t even know you had,” she said. “And then when you start comparing notes with other survivors, you start realizing that you’re all kind of going through a lot of the same symptoms, and then discovering that these are actually PTSD symptoms. They are not your personal defect.”
Sunni Welles says Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her twice in 1965. “It’s not just, ‘There’s somebody out there that the same thing happened to,'” she said. “It’s deeper than that. It’s the deepest connection I’ve had in my lifetime, with all these women. It literally is. And their strength is astounding to me.”
“I believe that I could literally call, had I had phone numbers of any of the survivors, I could call any of them without feeling that I was intruding upon them,” said Welles. “I don’t think there’s one I wouldn’t be able to contact with open arms that wouldn’t say, ‘hi’ — even if they were surprised to hear from me — and say, ‘let’s talk.'”
In October 2015, Welles sat with 26 other Cosby survivors for a Dateline special, “The Cosby Accusers Speak.” “It was extraordinary,” she said. “It was like a sisterhood. That’s how I felt. I had no idea that I would feel that way.”
Beth Ferrier, along with Heidi Thomas — one of the prior bad acts witnesses to testify at Cosby’s retrial — worked to extend the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases in the state of Colorado from 10 to 20 years.
“To know that someone else is carrying the baggage, the pain, too,” Ferrier said, is everything. “When I see his name online and I’m going, ‘Wow!’ There’s 60 other women, right now, looking at this, and I don’t have to call them and ask if they’ve seen it, because I’m sure they have. They’re putting it up… into the universe, of good, peaceful thoughts for one another.”
For a period of time, she was in touch with as many as 25 fellow survivors, though the intensity of those relationships waned, Ferrier said, after Ferrier left Allred’s stable, and the women felt “deflated” by the mistrial.
Still, “I would give my life, really, honestly, to any of these women,” Ferrier said.
For Ferrier, whose relationship with Cosby is more complex (they had a consensual affair, she says, before he drugged and sexually assaulted her), it was meeting the other survivors that enabled her to see “the big, bad, dark, satanic side of what really happened. Who Cosby really was.” Seeing Chelan Lasha in particular — who sobbed uncontrollably throughout her testimony at the retrial — gave Ferrier the most clarity. “[She] was the first person who I looked at and I really started to see the violence of him.”
Upon finding out that she was just one of the many members of this sisterhood ThinkProgress planned to contact for this story, she said, “Tell them all I love them! I would give my heart, my lungs, whatever, even in poor health. I would do anything for any of them. I would. That’s how I feel about them.”
And when Ferrier talked about the guilt she felt for not knowing, sooner, what Cosby was capable of — she could list every victim and the year of her alleged assault — she wept.
All “those girls,” she said. “I could have saved.”
Sunni Welles holds a place of dark privilege among Cosby survivors: Hers is the earliest known allegation, from 1965. Back when Welles met Cosby, he was just starting to shine on television. He worked with her mother, then a talent agent and a story editor at Paramount. In 1965, 17-year-old Welles went with her mom to visit Cosby on the I Spy set. Cosby inquired after Welles’ career goals and love of jazz; not too long after, he called to invite her out to a jazz club, which delighted Welles and her mother alike. “Mom was sure I’d be in safe hands with Bill – no question because we had known him for so long,” Welles wrote in her statement.
Welles sipped a Coke. Things became blurry. “I don’t remember leaving the Club; I don’t remember driving anywhere else,” she wrote. “What I do remember next was waking up naked in a bed alone in a sparsely furnished apartment.” She felt like she’d had sex.
She told her mom, who didn’t believe her. She called Cosby, who asked her if she remembered all that champagne she drank, how she’d had to sleep it off. She believed him more than she believed herself. He took her out once more and she drank another Coke and she woke up alone all over again. This time she didn’t call him and he didn’t call her, and after she told her mother, “she never spoke to him again, either.”
So Welles lived in that silence for one decade, then two, then three, then four, then five. She lived with her PTSD. She called him only “BC.” Speaking about him or, worse, accidentally saying his name, brought on uncontrollable flashbacks. She heard a glimmer of the news in 2005 but pushed it out of her mind. As she put it by phone, “I was avoiding pain.”
And maybe she would have done that for the rest of her life, had that late 2014 wave of women not roused something undeniable within her. “It was a shock, first of all, that the women would be so brave as they were to come forward,” Welles said. “Mine was at a time when you don’t speak about those things.”
When she saw that, on the internet, “we, the survivors, were the ones that were being attacked… I realized that I had no choice. I had to speak up.”
“I remember thinking, when there were 13, oh my God, there must be hundreds more,” said Welles. “And I still think there are hundreds more.”
In an unlikely but fortunate turn of events, Steuer saw the news that Andrea Constand had filed a police report against Bill Cosby the same day she and her husband were going to a couples counseling session.
The awe at her sudden change in circumstances — oh my God, I’m not alone, there’s someone else — was blunted swiftly by anger. “I realized, decades later, he was still doing it.”
At counseling, the therapist asked why Steuer was so agitated. So for the first time in a quarter-century, Steuer told her story. This time, she was encouraged to report. The therapist called the Montgomery County D.A.’s office on Steuer’s behalf, and Steuer became Jane Doe No. 4 in Constand’s civil suit against Cosby, which was settled out of court before any Jane Does were given the chance to testify. (Constand and Cosby settled for a then-confidential $3.38 million, an amount that was only revealed at retrial.)
Steuer didn’t know how many other women there were, only that there were other women — at least four, and probably more. “Because I thought I’d been alone for so long… and he’s had all these years in which to do this, there have to be a lot of us.” She wanted to get in touch with them, but she didn’t know who they were and besides, “I realized that it was probably not wise, because I didn’t want anyone to think we were colluding with each other.”
So in a way she was back where she started. Though “there was some satisfaction in having been willing to put myself out there,” she said, “It was frustrating and anti-climactic.”
Attention and outrage waned, as attention and outrage typically do. Cosby continued to earn accolades for his work. Cosby was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President George W. Bush in 2002; was inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame in 2006; given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Marian Anderson Award in 2009; and recognized as an honorary chief petty officer in the United States Navy in 2011.
As 2014 dawned, NBC announced Cosby would be returning to television with a new sitcom; that summer, Netflix announced that Bill Cosby 77, a stand-up comedy film, would be released before the end of the year.
But before Cosby’s stand-up special ever saw the light of streaming, a stand-up bit about Cosby went viral: Hannibal Buress’ set at the Trocadero in Philadelphia. The incendiary clip — “You rape women, Bill Cosby! So turn the crazy down a couple notches” — exploded. The joke, and the reaction to it, inspired Barbara Bowman to write op-ed in the Washington Post: “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”
So Steuer, finally, had a name.
Steuer found Bowman through social media and, a couple of months and a phone call later, flew to Arizona to meet her. “She was wonderful. She was loving. She was encouraging. And she encouraged me to consider coming forward.” In March 2015, Steuer did.
In awe, she watched the number of accusers steadily rise. “There was a certain satisfaction in being included in that group. ‘Oh my God, there are this many of us?'”
When Victoria Valentino communicates with her “sister survivors,” she knows she’s supposed to be “circumspect.” On Facebook and in “a little instant message group,” the women avoid getting too personal. “Just because Cosby’s attorneys are sharks, and they’ll subpoena anything we say.”
Valentino laughs at the suggestion that she is part of a vast conspiracy spanning considerable space — from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, from Denver to New York, with several stops in between — and time. “I’m 75,” she said. “Some of them weren’t even born when I was raped by him.”
Many of the women who have gone public with their Cosby allegations cite their fellow survivors as an inspiration, in two senses of the word. Had others not gone before them, they may never have found the courage to do so themselves. And for those who would come after them, they wanted to send up a signal flare, to let the countless others know: You’re not the only one.
But where Cosby survivors say the voices of these other accusers and the connections they’ve built with one another have been a lifeline, Cosby’s legal team saw something else: Proof of dishonesty and collusion.
At the retrial, defense attorney Thomas Mesereau argued that the prior bad acts witnesses were just bandwagoning, inventing salacious lies for attention and money, conspiring together to destroy a man’s hard-earned reputation. (Model Janice Dickinson was especially unimpressed by this tactic: “I don’t need publicity from this.”)
During his cross-examination of Baker-Kinney, Mesereau leaned hard into this theory: That it’s awfully convenient Baker-Kinney didn’t even grasp that she was raped until she read about it in a magazine. That it sure sounded like Baker-Kinney could have swiped her story from one of these other accusers as easily as she might copy a celebrity’s outfit.
Mesereau offered this summary of Baker-Kinney’s narrative: “You didn’t know you were raped until other women said they’d been.”
Call it the Cosby Catch-22. If none of these women ever speaks out, no one ever finds out that Cosby is, allegedly, a serial sexual predator. That means no civil suits, no criminal trials. And if one is to credit the Cosby women with laying the foundation for what would become the #MeToo movement, well, who knows how many of these alleged — or admitted — serial sexual predators would still be dominating Hollywood and the news media, even running for or holding elected office, had they not gone public when they did?
But if they do talk about the alleged assaults, as dozens of women have, they risk making each other look guilty by association. And so the only recourse available to victims whose statutes of limitation have long expired can be weaponized against them.
“Well, isn’t that the way the system is set up, though?” Steuer replied when asked about this conundrum. “The system is set up to protect perpetrators and vilify victims, blame victims. So it doesn’t surprise me at all. Many of us have been very circumspect about what we say to each other, how we speak to each other, what we say. We’re very aware of what’s at stake here.”
“We can say whatever we want to each other, as long as there are no microphones around — and we do!” Valentino said. “Nobody’s tried to keep us from being together, it we want to be. We just have to be more circumspect, and always be thinking about justice for Andrea.”
Steuer was with her husband — the man who had told her all those years ago, “I don’t think you should bother to go forward because I don’t think anyone will believe you” — when a one-word text message from a friend lit up her phone: “Guilty.”
“I stood there looking at the phone, unable to comprehend what that meant,” she said by phone the next morning. “It was so stunning to me.” She took a few steps in shock, then “I turned to my husband and threw my arms around him and started to cry. And he started to cry. And he’s not really somebody, ever, who cries. We were holding each other, weeping.”
Days before Cosby’s retrial began, Steuer confessed to being uncertain about what justice would look like in this case. “I just know that my part in all of this was to come forward and tell the truth, when I had the courage to do that,” she said at the time.
But the morning after the conviction, she says, is “a new day! And I mean that in more ways than one… It’s a new day for all women, because of this verdict.”
Less than 24 hours after Cosby’s conviction came down, Steuer said, “You know
— oh, I’m going to get very emotional here — it’s unbelievable, but it’s all been worth it. All of the heartache, all of the living in loneliness and isolation for 25 years, feeling like I was in solitary confinement. Coming forward and being vilified, being called horrible names, being called gold-diggers, being discredited. Today, all of it is worth it.”
On the morning after the verdict, Steuer said she meditated on what to do next. She sent a Facebook message to Lise-Lotte Lublin, one of the survivors who testified at the retrial. Steuer just relocated to Nevada; Lotte-Lublin lives in Las Vegas. So she wrote to her sister in her new home state to ask: “What do we need to do?”
“Sometimes we end up doing things in life that we never imagined, that we never saw ourselves doing. We never considered identifying ourselves with a cause,” Steuer said. “I never considered myself a victims rights advocate, but that’s what my life is turning into.”
“There’s more work to do,” Steuer said.
Ferrier was at home with her dogs when the call came in. She’d been “binge-watching” the news from her phone, from afar, but when she saw “Lili and Victoria, sobbing and getting kicked out of the courtroom,” she said, she felt like “I was there. It was a close as we’ve ever been, all together, doing something to help so many people.”
It was the five prior bad acts witnesses, Ferrier believes, that cinched the outcome of the retrial. “There was the right amount of Heidi Thomas and her perfection and her gorgeous self, and her strong self, who has been able to basically open and close Pandora’s box about Cosby whenever she needs,” Ferrier said. “To Chelan Lasha, who was emotionally showing what the impact of Cosby has done to her, to Janice Dickinson, who, thank God, was so strong… and Janice Baker-Kinney calling out [Mesereau] for rolling his eyes, and Lise Lotte-Lublin, who was just so calm and accurate on every thing that they said and did.”
The takeaway for Ferrier is, “It takes an army. It takes a village. A village of women, and men, working together for a common good.”
Though the trial is over, Ferrier won’t feel anything close to closure until the sentencing comes down. “I want him to have to spend some time in prison, because he’s had us in prison.”
But even after that, she said, the survivor sisterhood “will be connected forever, in some ways. I hope… We’re as close as sisters as I’ve known.”
“I’m really proud of the 62,” Ferrier said. “I’m proud to be a part of it.” She hopes that when the sentencing comes down, she and all her sister survivors can “find some way to celebrate this. That would be some closure.”
Late Thursday night, hours after the verdict was announced, Steuer posted an image on her Facebook page: It was a poster for Wonder Woman, with Gal Gadot’s body in silhouette against an indistinct, fiery blaze, a sword in her right hand.
Steuer’s caption read: “Wonder Woman a.k.a. Dre Constand.”