Lili Bernard, one of the 60 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual misconduct, said the news that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had overturned the 83-year-old actor and comedian’s 2018 conviction struck her like a “gut punch, a sucker punch.”
“I have six children. I was trying to go about my morning as a mom,” Bernard, an artist and actress who appeared on The Cosby Show, said Saturday evening at a vigil at Independence Hall for survivors of alleged sexual assaults committed by Cosby. “I’m trying to gather myself, and I’m just sobbing.”
The vigil included a performance choreographed by Bernard in which she and two other women, wearing blindfolds and white dresses, froze in poses of agony while holding the “broken” scales of justice, Bernard said. In front of them were paper bags with the names of Cosby’s alleged victims written on them and candles inside.
The three women then performed a dance led by Bernard, an Afro-Cuban immigrant, that honored the Orisha Ọbà, the Yoruban female deity.
Victoria Valentino, who has accused Cosby of drugging and raping her when she was working as a model in 1969, said the court’s ruling was just the latest in a long line of failures of the American justice system to protect women. Cases in which credibly accused men walk free discourage victims from coming forward, she said.
“We turn the pain on ourselves because we don’t have anyone else to help us,” she said. “We need to put the legal system on notice.”
The vigil came 10 days after the state’s highest court threw out Cosby’s conviction, which was the first instance of a high-profile celebrity being found guilty of sexual assault during the #MeToo movement.
Although more than 50 women have accused Cosby of sexual impropriety — allegations Cosby denies — statutes of limitations prevented him from being prosecuted in all but one case.
Cosby was accused of drugging and assaulting Temple University employee Andrea Constand during a 2004 incident at his Cheltenham home. He was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison after being convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
In their ruling, the justices did not determine that Cosby was innocent of the accusations but found that the prosecution used improper evidence during the trial. The legal dispute centered on a 2005 promise by then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. to not prosecute Cosby for the alleged sexual assault.
After that promise, Cosby later gave incriminating testimony in a civil suit brought by Constand that was used against him in the case that led to the 2018 conviction, amounting to an “unconstitutional coercive bait-and-switch” by prosecutors, Justice David N. Wecht wrote in the decision. (The civil suit ended in a $3.4 million settlement.)
Current Montgomery County prosecutors had argued that Castor’s pledge not to prosecute Cosby did not bind them from doing so in the future. District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, who defeated Castor in his 2015 campaign for the job and criticized Castor’s handling of the Cosby case, said the court’s reasoning relied on “a procedural issue irrelevant to the facts of the crime.”
The day after Cosby was released from prison, the two leaders of the state Senate Judiciary Committee — chair Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) and ranking member Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks) — announced they would pursue legislation making future non-prosecution agreements unenforceable unless they are in writing.
Despite the fact that no court has found Cosby not guilty of the allegations, the comedian has framed the ruling as a vindication.
“I have never changed my stance nor my story,” Cosby posted on Twitter. “I have always maintained my innocence.”
Constand said in a statement that the ruling “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.”
Cosby was released from a state prison near Collegeville on June 30 and returned to his Elkins Park residence. Looking hobbled, he greeted supporters gathered outside with a V-for-victory sign while wearing a Central High School T-shirt and velvet shoes. He spent the night talking on the phone with celebrity friends and eating pizza from Zio’s in Center City.
Although he is out of prison, Cosby may still face legal consequences in civil cases over alleged sexual misconduct. The only claim currently pending against him is a Los Angeles sexual battery lawsuit filed by Judy Huth, who alleges Cosby forced her to perform a sex act on him at the Playboy Mansion in the ’70s when she was 15.
The case was on hold until Cosby could be deposed. Now that he’s out of prison, Huth’s attorney, Gloria Allred, is aiming to schedule his testimony within months.
The Cosby accusers at Saturday’s vigil said that, despite his release, they don’t believe the case was for nought.
“Bill Cosby may very well be out,” Valentino said, “but he will always go down in history as a sexual predator.”