The night Bill Cosby was sent to prison, McKenzie Kemper opened a bottle of champagne. She and her roommate invited over a friend to celebrate: One of the highest-profile men ever accused of sexual assault had been sentenced to three to 10 years behind bars, a harsher sentence than Kemper had expected.
“It felt like maybe we were finally making progress,” said Kemper, a 34-year-old based in Independence, Ky. It felt like, finally, the justice system was starting to listen to victims of sexual assault, she added.
“We drank to that moment of hope.”
On Wednesday, Cosby, 83, was released from prison after more than two years in custody. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction, ruling that a “non-prosecution” agreement that a former prosecutor involved in the case struck with Cosby should have precluded the entertainer from being convicted.
“We always believed that this is how the case was going to end up,” said Brian W. Perry, one of Cosby’s appeals lawyers.
When Kemper heard the news, which overturns the first major prosecution of the #MeToo movement, she felt like she’d been “punched,” she said, then doused in “icy cold water.” She thought back to her own sexual assault. When she reported her rape as a freshman in college, she said she was told she didn’t have enough evidence for a prosecution. She left school, she said — while her rapist graduated on time.
To Kemper, Cosby’s release was a reminder that not much had changed in the 16 years since she’d been assaulted.
“It feels like we’re back at square one.”
The news of Cosby’s release is having a profound impact on victims of sexual assault and harassment, many of whom viewed his sentence as a rare triumph within a criminal justice system where the vast majority of sex-related crimes go unprosecuted. The news could have a “chilling effect” on victims who may be thinking about coming forward, said Carrie Goldberg, a victims’ rights lawyer based in New York. More than 2 in every 3 sexual assaults go unreported.
“It’s a very demoralizing result,” Goldberg said. “It shows that somebody can go through the burden of a full criminal proceeding and trial, and the public scrutiny that entails, and then have [the case] be dismissed based on a hush-hush agreement.”
When Carolyn West heard the news of Cosby’s overturned conviction, she immediately thought of her students.
West, a psychologist and professor at the University of Washington at Tacoma who studies intimate partner violence and sexual assault, knows that some of the students in her classes are survivors, or know someone who is.
“My concern is that [the news] will create trauma and be triggering for other survivors. These high-profile cases tend to do that,” West said. “The take-home message is, consistently, that justice is still very elusive for survivors of sexual assault.”
According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, the country’s largest survivor advocacy organization, nearly half a million Americans 12 and older are the victim of sexual assault or rape every year, but only 25 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will spend time in prison for their crimes.
Cosby’s sexual assault trial was among the highest-profile cases of the past five years, when the #MeToo movement helped propel a reckoning over sexual abuse to the front of the national consciousness. He was convicted on three counts of sexual assault in April 2018.
At least 60 women have come forward accusing Cosby of sexually harassing or assaulting them. The earliest allegations stretch back to the 1960s.
Cosby’s conviction provided a “small level of comfort,” said West: “Somewhere out there, there’s possibly some justice that could be gained for some survivors, even if that didn’t happen for you individually.”
It was especially noteworthy that Cosby was such a powerful individual, West said. Seeing someone of Cosby’s stature be held accountable could be encouraging to victims even if they weren’t abused by a celebrity, giving them the courage to come forward against popular or powerful members of their families, schools and communities.
“And now,” West said, “that’s been taken away.”
The shock of seeing Cosby go free can be compounded by social media, especially if survivors see people they know and admire voicing support for Cosby.
Among Cosby’s most high-profile supporters on Wednesday was actress Phylicia Rashad, his former co-star and incoming dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts. Rashad applauded the overturned conviction, tweeting that “a miscarriage of justice is corrected” alongside an image of Cosby.
After a flurry of criticism over her tweet, Rashad later added, “I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth.”
Nylah Burton, a writer and former student of Howard University, called Rashad’s initial comments “obscene.”
Burton said she was raped while attending the university. Last year, she set up a GoFundMe to help support current and former Howard University students who have experienced sexual violence on the HBCU campus. The 26-year-old said she’s still processing the news about Cosby, which was “triggering,” but it was Rashad’s comment that she found immediately chilling.
“To see random people celebrating Bill Cosby is always hurtful, of course, but to see people with so much institutional and cultural power … so firmly against you, it makes you feel hopeless,” Burton said.
Survivors are already worried that their stories will be ignored or “pushed back into some file,” Burton said. But Rashad’s joy at seeing Cosby go free could make it even harder for victims of sexual violence at Howard to come forward: Burton fears that Rashad won’t just ignore students who report abuse, but may retaliate against them.
A representative for Rashad did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“What survivors know intimately is that power follows power,” Burton said. “So all it takes is enough people in power to dismiss a survivor for their experiences not to matter.
Kemper also worries Cosby’s release will stop other victims of sexual assault from coming forward. There is a high cost to reporting these kinds of crimes, she said. People you love and respect will call you a “liar.” Watching this latest news unfold, she said, she imagines other victims will decide it’s not worth it.
If abusers “have enough money, if they have enough power, they’re still going to walk free,” she said.
“So why open your mouth?”