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Bill Cosby's Release Could Have A Silencing Effect On Victims, Advocates Say

The news that Bill Cosby has been released from prison has enraged sexual assault victims' advocates and #MeToo activists.

Dozens of women going back decades accused Bill Cosby of sexual harassment and assault. In 2018, a jury found him guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home in Cheltenham, Pa., outside Philadelphia. On Wednesday, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the indecent assault conviction against him on a legal technicality.

"It's really sending shockwaves through our survivor community," Angela Rose, founder and president of Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, told NPR. In 2018, Rose supported Andrea Constand in the courtroom when Bill Cosby was convicted for sexual assault. "I fear that this is going to really hinder other survivors from coming forward."

The case against Cosby was seen as a milestone in the #MeToo movement. Attorney Gloria Allred, who has represented a number of alleged sexual assault victims, called the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision "devastating for Bill Cosby's accusers."

... [The court's decision] did not vindicate Bill Cosby's conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement or a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused.

Some of Allred's clients testified in criminal cases against Cosby. She wrote that, despite the decision, "this was an important fight for justice, and even though the court overturned the conviction on technical grounds, it did not vindicate Bill Cosby's conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement or a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused."

For many people, Cosby's friend and TV co-star Phylicia Rashad put salt on the wound when she tweeted enthusiastic support for the fallen comedian.

Phylicia Rashad tweeted support for Cosby then clarified

"FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!" Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, exclaimed.

She later backpedaled, tweeting, "I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth."

Rashad was recently appointed the dean of Howard University's College of Fine Arts. For Howard alumnus and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, Rashad's original comment was "astounding."

"That sets a particular tone for young women ... about what kind of reception they'd receive if they brought allegations of sexual assault at the university," Cobb told NPR.

Another Howard graduate, Soraya McDonald, agrees. McDonald, a culture critic for The Undefeated and contributor to NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, was shocked when she heard that Cosby had been released.

"My first response was really just sort of gutting disappointment once I realized this wasn't just like a rumor that was floating around on Twitter, but it had actually been confirmed," she told NPR.

Cosby was released on a legal technicality. In a "non-prosecution agreement," he was told he would not be prosecuted for criminal charges.

The seemingly swift decision reminded McDonald of the Heidi Schreck play What The Constitution Means To Me. "The theme of that work is about the different ways that women are basically left exposed and unprotected and sometimes just unseen by the Constitution," she said.

McDonald feels for the dozens of women who had "the bravery to come forward and say what happened to them, to testify in court, you know, to go through so much, just to see ... some measure of justice ... and then just have it be vacated. You know, it is devastating."

Women In Film, Los Angeles called Cosby's release "a setback in the fight for justice for sexual assault survivors." The statement from the nonprofit urged people "in a position of power in the screen industries to put an end to the culture of silence and acceptance that allowed Cosby to prey on so many women."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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