On my way to the airport from Bill Cosby sentencing, my Uber driver, Sarah, asked me why the Cosby survivors waited so long to come forward. After a night of celebrating the sweet justice delivered for Andrea Constand and 61 other Cosby survivors, Sarah abruptly brought me back to the reality that rape culture dies hard.
I witnessed Cosby’s two trials and sentencing with Cosby survivors Lili Bernard (an artist and mother of six), Therese Serignese (a registered nurse), Victoria Valentino (an artist and author), and Linda Kirkpatrick (a business owner). I witnessed firsthand the sacrifices these women and so many others have made to hold this fallen icon accountable.
When the foreperson read the “guilty” verdict in April, the emotional floodgates opened. Therese, who had been waiting for justice for nearly 40 years, collapsed in tears on my left, and Lili, who had been waiting 25 years, wailed uncontrollably on my right and hit her head on the bench in front of us. We had to leave the courtroom for breaking decorum, so I grabbed onto both women and held them up as we walked out.
At the sentencing this week, more than a dozen Cosby came in from all over, including comedian/model Janice Dickenson, school teacher Lise-Lotte Lublin, and dietician Chelan Lasha, who testified at the second trial. They were joined by actor Sunni Wells, likely the first Cosby survivor, as well as entertainment executive Cindra Ladd, attorney Tamara Green, model Sarita Butterfield, and talk show host Stacey Pinkerton. We quickly bonded during hours of waiting in the dark outside the courthouse each morning to secure seats.
Cosby survivors travelled from all over for the sentencing. Stacey Pinkerton, who had remained anonymous until the sentencing, travelled from Spain where she fled after Cosby raped her 32 years ago. Tamara Green drove her RV out from California, but had to abandon it at a garage in Virginia after a gas station attendant topped off her diesel tank with gasoline. One survivor spent her last penny to fly out, and on the second day of sentencing, I discovered that she had not eaten anything since breakfast the day before.
Survivors who attended the trial gave up much more than their time and money. Throughout the trial, we faced daily harassment and occasional physical violence from an army of coordinated (paid?) Cosby supporters. I was one of a small group of people who did what we could to shield the survivors from these brutal humans.
Cosby survivors also faced the daily reality of being triggered by details of sexual violence in the courtroom and a frequently smirking Cosby. On the last day of sentencing, Cosby answered a series of questions—the most he had spoken the whole trial. Just hearing his voice caused one survivor to go into a dissociative state and emotionally incapacitated several others.
The damage Cosby has wreaked in the lives of so many is staggering. Survivors shared frank details about their rapes and the aftermath during the trial and after the sentencing. The common threads were suicide attempts, failed careers, failed relationships, and running away. Janice Dickinson escaped to Milan. Stacie fled to Spain by way of Hawaii then Europe: “”No place was far enough away from Mr. Cosby.” Lili and Victoria saw their careers decline in a PTSD haze. Sunni and Andrea spoke about their loneliness in not being able to maintain relationships since their rapes.
Compared to the two trials, the sentencing was a relief. Every decision broke in favor of survivors. First, Judge O’Neill ruled that it was constitutional to classify a felon as a “sexually violent predator.” Then, after more than a day of agonizing testimony from two woefully underprepared experts, the judge ruled Cosby a “sexually violent predator,” which means counseling and reporting to authorities for the rest of his life.
The third victory for survivors was the sentence: three to ten years in prison. Cosby could have gotten parole or mansion arrest, but the judge considered Cosby’s lack of remorse and the severity of the crime in determining his sentence. Most of the survivors I spoke with were satisfied that he would be behind bars, but some expressed anger about light sentences for rape more broadly.
After the verdict came down, Bill Cosby started rolling up his sleeves for handcuffs, laughing so hard his shoulders were bouncing. His slow-moving spin man, Andrew Wyatt, was yucking it up with him, like it was all a joke. Their nonchalance stung. The ever fearless Janice Dickenson responded by faux cackling so loudly a court officer threatened to remove her.
As an officer approached Cosby to affix handcuffs, we all stood up and put our hands over our hearts. Tears streamed down most of the cheeks of the Cosby survivors as we solemnly stood in place. For safety reasons, we had to leave the courtroom before the handcuffs were placed on his wrists, which rightfully incensed some survivors who wanted this finite moment of closure.
As we filed out, Andrew Wyatt, blew Cosby survivor Lise-Lotte Lublin a kiss and winked at her. This ugly parting gesture was par for the course at this trial where Andrew made his money targeting rape survivors.
Cosby’s three to ten year prison sentence—the maximum on the high end— marks a substantial victory for survivors in the first high-profile case of the #MeToo movement. Only one-third of survivors report their rapes, and only 2% of rapists will ever see a day in jail, so Cosby’s guilty verdict and sentence of three to ten years in prison is remarkable. But this case also demonstrates how the law is stacked against survivors. Arbitrary statutes of limitation barred 61 survivors from seeking justice, and light sentences for this felony crime means that a rapist who left numerous women with life-long trauma could be a free man in three years.
Victoria Valentino perhaps put it best: “The bottom line is this whole thing is so much bigger than Cosby. This is about a woman’s worth. This is about rape culture in our society. This is about the fact that we as women are not equal under the constitution in 2018.”
Cosby’s mugshot (he finally stopped laughing) brought catharsis and closure to many Cosby survivors, but for some, it also brought about the weighty realization that closure can be healing, but it cannot fully erase the trauma. These women will carry the emotional burden of his monster’s abuse for the rest of the lives, but with the survivor sisterhood, they will not carry it alone.