Bill Cosby's sexual assault case did 'change the tide,' even though conviction overturned: lawyer

Bill Cosby has been released from prison after his sexual assault conviction was overturned on Wednesday, bringing to an end a case that was one of the catalysts for the #MeToo movement, which sparked global discussion of sexual assault and treatment of survivors.

Release from prison raises concerns about treatment of survivors by the courts

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby leaves the courthouse after he was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial, in Norristown, Pa., on April 26, 2018. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned Cosby's conviction. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

Bill Cosby has been released from prison after his sexual assault conviction was overturned on Wednesday, bringing to an end a case that was one of the catalysts for the #MeToo movement, which sparked global discussion of sexual assault and treatment of survivors.

The 83-year-old former star of The Cosby Show was arrested and charged in 2015 for the alleged sexual assault and drugging of Andrea Constand, a Canadian, at his Pennsylvania home in 2004. Cosby served almost three years of a three- to 10-year sentence, handed down in September 2018, after being found guilty of the charges.

In overturning the conviction, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor on the case was bound by a predecessor's agreement not to charge Cosby. There is no evidence that the agreement was put into writing.

Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement at the Canadian Women's Foundation, told CBC News that the #MeToo movement only scratched the surface in its pursuit of support for sexual assault survivors.

"Sexual violence is such a widespread issue. Sexual assault and sexual harassment, in all spheres of life.... It's really about societal change and culture change as much as it is about making our systems better," she said.

Gunraj said U.S. activist Tarana Burke coined the #MeToo hashtag in 2006 to help women in underrepresented communities tell their stories about sexual violence.

According to data from Statistics Canada, only one in 20 sexual assault incidents are reported to authorities in this country.

Gunraj said there are various reasons why a survivor might not want to file a report: They might be afraid for their safety, they might be concerned that they will be treated poorly by the justice system or they might not even know what happened to them.

"We also know that very few of those cases actually go anywhere in the system," she said. "There's a lot of issues with the way that these cases are treated in the system."

Lawyer Jennifer Bonjean, left, speaks to the media outside of Cosby's home in Cheltenham, Pa., on Wednesday, after his release from prison. He served almost three years of a three- to 10-year sentence. (Michael Abbott/Getty Images)

Constand issues statement after ruling

Constand, who met Cosby while she was the director of operations for the women's basketball program at Temple University in Philadelphia, released a statement with her lawyers after Wednesday's ruling.

"Today's majority decision regarding Bill Cosby is not only disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action," the first part of her statement said.

In both Canada and the United States, the criminal justice system and civil justice system have key differences, said Toronto lawyer Simona Jellinek, who represents sexual assault survivors. Cosby was first sued in the civil system and later charged as a criminal.

"[In the criminal system], the accused has an awful lot more rights and leeway ... than the survivor, the plaintiff, the person who comes forward and complains," Jellinek said. The civil system, she said, is friendlier toward survivors. "You as the plaintiff, as a survivor, have much more control over what's happening in your case."

Cosby was accused by 60 women of sexual assault, but only Constand's complaint led to criminal charges.

Jellinek said his case was a significant turning point in the cultural conversation surrounding sexual violence.

WATCH | Bill Cosby released from prison: 

Bill Cosby released from prison after sexual assault conviction overturned

4 months ago
Bill Cosby is a free man today, after seeing his conviction for sexual assault overturned. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Cosby had been denied a fair trial back in 2018. 2:11

"It really did show the first time where the prosecution of a very high-profile actor was what was done," she said. "And not only was it done, but it was also successful — at least at that first instance.

"And it did absolutely change the tide in some ways, as a result."

Cosby released on technicality: lawyer

Jellinek, whose firm specializes in representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault, said the new ruling is "one more brick in [the] wall."

"It wouldn't surprise me if there's a lot of people out there who are suffering right now hearing this news," she said, adding that it's important to remember that Cosby is being released from prison on a technicality.

"He really was found guilty," Jellinek said. "Survivors should take a lot of strength in that, that the prosecution was done and it was successful."

Gunraj said every survivor of a sexual assault will have a different reaction depending on their experience. The priority is to fund resources that will assist them in times of hardship.

For individuals with marginalized identities, it may be more difficult to access support that is tailored to their needs despite high rates of sexual violence, she said. This includes Indigenous women, Black women and people who are trans or non-binary.

"I think we need to really ask: What are you going to do in the long term to make sure that these things don't happen, that when somebody gets hurt, they get the support they need?" 

If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area, visit sheltersafe.ca or endingviolencecanada.org/getting-help.

If you're worried someone you know may be experiencing intimate partner violence, here are some warning signs, according to the Canadian Red Cross: 

  • Victim says their feelings and wishes are ignored by their partner.
  • They are being name-called or criticized.
  • They are being controlled financially, emotionally or physically. 
  • They are being kept away from friends by their partner. 
  • Partner threatens to hurt victim or show anger if they don't get what they want.
  • Partner stalks victim. 
  • Victim has expressed they've been abused before, verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually.

With files from The Associated Press, Meagan Fitzpatrick and Arti Patel