Bill Cosby's Case Proves It Shouldn't Matter When an Assault Victim Reports

Walking away from Cosby’s case, given the stories of over 60 survivors, it’s absurd that the legal system relied on archaic and illogical statutes of limitations in order to jail this abuser and others like him.
Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

Bill Cosby is going to prison. The world-famous comedian known as “America’s Dad” and creator of The Cosby Show was sentenced on Tuesday to three to 10 years in state prison for drugging and raping Andrea Constand in his Philadelphia home in 2004. Five months before, a jury found Cosby guilty on three counts of aggravated assault inflicted on Constand, a former Temple University employee who he had mentored.


Cosby’s prison sentence comes in the wake of over four decades of sexual assault accusations against him from over 60 women. Details of their stories have only become public in the last three years. In every reported incident before Constand came forward, Cosby refuted the claims when assault survivors went to the police, and the claimants' accusations were dismissed before ever making it to court.

Why? Because there is a patriarchal legal system in place set up against women that have shown no amount of reporting or sharing stories or screaming to the high heavens will change the end result: The message, and too often, the result is that the protection of predatory men is more important than the voices of women.

Cosby’s sexual assault case has been a whirlwind to follow, but if we’ve learned anything from it, it’s delayed disclosure is a real problem in this country. (According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, which means about two out of three incidents go unreported. Survivors’ reasons for not coming forward vary widely, but 20 percent don’t report crimes because of the fear of retaliation from the perpetrator.)

Let’s examine Constrand’s “win”: She was only able to take Cosby to court because she filed within the 12-year statute of limitations of Pennsylvania. Constand’s legal battle began in 2005 when a district attorney threw out her case against Cosby due to “insufficient credible and admissible evidence.” A month later, Constand sued Cosby. They settled for $3.38 million, but Constand also had to sign a nondisclosure agreement in civil court to never discuss the case again.


Fast forward to October 2014, when comedian Hannibal Buress did a standup routine in which he called Cosby a “rapist,” which went viral. Only then did the general public start to believe the women who accused Cosby who’d made their stories public. Four years, one mistrial, and one retrial later, Cosby was found guilty of sexually assaulting Constand who took him to criminal court—and the main aspects of Constand’s case which made that possible were the statute of limitations and her early documentation of the incident.

“I think that, our nation, we couldn't be having this conversation at a better time,” Kristen Houser, the Chief Public Affairs Officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told Broadly of her opinion on questioning the statute of limitations in regards to delayed disclosure. “Generally, it's very fair to say that statutes of limitation are arbitrary. Different states have different standards about when the clock starts ticking on the statute, because some states say it begins when the crime was committed. Other states say it depends at the time that the victim realizes it was committed.”

Over the course of “Andrea Constand v. William H. Cosby, Jr.,” California became the 17th state to effectively eliminate the statute of limitations when it comes to rape, child molestation, and other sex crimes. Pennsylvania is voting to amend the statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse as well, but would only eliminate it completely in child abuse prosecutions—the bill would only open a two-year window for adult victims.

“It shows that our country still has a hierarchy of victimization—that we somehow think sexual assault of children is worse than sexual assault with adults,” says Houser. “That is misinformed, but commonly held emotional response. It's not really based on the lifelong impact on victims.”

Walking away from Cosby’s case, given the stories of over 60 survivors, it’s absurd that the legal system relied on archaic and illogical statutes of limitations in order to jail this abuser and others like him. Survivors are told to speak up but not at the expense of predatory men; they’re told to move on but not forget every detail of their trauma. But how can justice truly prevail if law —created to incite fear and intimidate— binds the truth?