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Bill Cosby, free but not exonerated, faces an uncertain future

Experts said they were skeptical Cosby had a viable path to rehabilitate his career despite the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday that overturned his sexual assault conviction.

By: New York Times |
July 2, 2021 10:58:57 am
Comedian Bill Cosby reacts outside his home in Elkins Park, Pa., Wednesday, June 30, 2021, after being released from prison. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Since Bill Cosby left prison this week after three years of incarceration, flashing a defiant V-sign as he returned a free man to his home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the talk of his inner circle has been celebratory, as those close to him described his first meal of fish and pizza and his determination to rehabilitate his legacy.

His spokesperson, Andrew Wyatt, described the court ruling that freed him as a victory for Black America and, somewhat incongruously, for women, and ticked off the projects with which Cosby would now be involved.

Wyatt said Cosby plans to write a book in collaboration with him, and that Cosby is working with a production company on a five-part documentary about his life and legacy. He said Cosby, 83, also intends to return to the stage at some point and that he had been fielding calls from promoters.

“People want to hear and see this guy,” Wyatt said. “He can sell out shows. People want to hear Mr. Cosby. He is loved by millions.”

But the road ahead is unlikely to be that smooth for the entertainer, who is still trailed by accusations from more than 50 women that he sexually abused them.

Experts said they were skeptical Cosby had a viable path to rehabilitate his career despite the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday that overturned his sexual assault conviction.

“He is going to be proactive and apparently public but the #MeToo movement is real and strong and won’t tolerate any public acceptance of him again,” said Sara Brady, a reputation crisis manager. “I don’t think he has any real place to go.”

Cosby’s 2018 conviction smashed the already tarnished image he had once enjoyed as the upstanding paterfamilias in the wildly popular 1980s and 90s sitcom “The Cosby Show.” As Cosby faced accusations of sexual misconduct and suffered from ill health, his comedy career was already waning before his 2015 arrest and later two trials on charges he had drugged and sexually assaulted Andrea Constand.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling this week that overturned Cosby’s conviction in that case found that his right to due process had been violated. The court did not exonerate him but concluded that he had not received a fair trial because some evidence against him had been improperly gained. He relied on a promise a former district attorney had made never to prosecute him in the Constand case in return for his testimony in a related civil case.

Cosby has always maintained his innocence, describing his encounter with Constand as consensual. But for the many women who have accused him, and the many people who believe them, he remains a rich entitled man who beat the odds through good lawyering.

“There is no public appetite for Bill Cosby to have a comeback,” said Risa Heller, a crisis consultant who advised the disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner. “I don’t think there are ways for Bill Cosby to rebuild trust.”

In the civil case, brought by Constand in 2005 before her criminal case, Cosby sat for days of testimony in which he said he was no sexual predator, but presented himself as an unapologetic, cavalier playboy and admitted giving quaaludes to women he was pursuing for sex, but not without their knowledge.

Parts of that deposition figured in the criminal trial. And in considering Cosby’s appeal, the Supreme Court judges found that he had only agreed to being deposed because he believed his statements could not be used against him in a criminal prosecution.

A lawyer who represented seven of the women accusing Cosby of sexual assault, Joseph Cammarata, insisted that Cosby’s legal victory did not represent the vindication the entertainer had been seeking. “Cosby gets to say he is innocent, but the Supreme Court didn’t reject the claims of 60 women, or the women who testified at trial that they were assaulted by Cosby, and it didn’t reject the jury’s verdict that he was guilty on all counts,” Cammarata said.

Until his release, Cosby had been inmate NN7687 at SCI Phoenix, a maximum-security facility about 45 minutes outside Philadelphia. Because he is legally blind, he was often assisted by inmate handlers, and even from prison, he tried to retain some kind of public profile, often posting on social media about racism, the achievements of others and memorable moments from his career.

Cosby looked frail and walked slowly when he arrived home at his mansion in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday. Later he came out to face the media, his fans and protesters, but Wyatt and his lawyers spoke for him. On Thursday, he left his home to meet friends and be reunited with his wife, Camille.

Charles Kipps, a producer and writer who worked with Cosby starting in the early 1990s, said it is up to audiences, not pundits, to decide whether Cosby should resume his career.

“He has every right to try it,” Kipps said. “Whether or not he can overcome all this onstage remains to be seen.”

Another supporter, actress Phylicia Rashad, who appeared as Cosby’s wife in “The Cosby Show,” celebrated his new freedom Wednesday by declaring on Twitter, “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

But she later wrote: “I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth.”

It was evidence, perhaps, of how difficult it might be for Cosby to build support going forward.

“He has not been exonerated in the court of public opinion,” said Zakiya Larry, a strategic communications and crisis mitigation executive. “Cosby’s team would benefit from taking a huge step back, pressing pause and talking publicly about rehabilitating Cosby himself first.”

If comedy venues or television studios choose to work with him at this point, it would be more for the shock value than anything else, Larry said, adding, “The others that are reputable would not touch him with a 10-foot pole right now.”

The SFJazz Center, the site of the 2014 taping of his Netflix stand-up comedy special — which was ultimately canceled because of the sexual assault allegations — said it does not want him back.

“I can say definitively that he would not be performing in the future at SFJazz — I can say that without any hesitation,” said Greg Stern, its CEO.

Although “The Cosby Show” can still be streamed, Rich Cronin, a former television executive and the founder of TV Land, which is known for its nostalgic reruns, said that he would be shocked if networks started airing it again. (TV Land, which is owned by ViacomCBS, pulled reruns of “The Cosby Show” in 2014, amid sexual assault allegations.)

“There would be a major boycott of TV Land or any network that wanted to start rerunning ‘Cosby,’ ” he said. “Networks are in the business of getting the most viewers and advertisers possible, so they stay away from controversy.”

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