It was late morning in Las Vegas when a caretaker told Autumn Burns that Bill Cosby was about to be released from prison. Assuming it had to be a joke, Burns responded: “Oh, come on.”
Then the news flickered on, and Burns, who is 74, listened closely. The anchor confirmed it. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had overturned the sexual assault conviction of Cosby, the comedian she accused of raping her in the 1970s when she was a 24-year-old game starter at a casino.
“I thought this was done,” Burns said Wednesday afternoon, minutes before the 83-year-old Cosby left prison a free man. “It just doesn’t seem right.”
The news reverberated from Pennsylvania to Hollywood and across the country, stunning Burns, who is among dozens of women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual misconduct. The vast majority of their cases will never see a courtroom, either because the statute of limitations expired or because prosecutors decided not to take them up.
The court’s decision to reverse Cosby’s conviction — on charges he sexually assaulted former Temple University employee Andrea Constand in 2004 — shocked both his accusers and the activists who saw his jailing two years ago as among the greatest wins since the #MeToo movement gripped the country in 2017.
Tarana Burke and Dani Ayers, the leaders of me too. International, said in a statement the decision is “a miscarriage of what little accountability survivors are afforded by our legal system.”
Women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, who represented more than 30 of Cosby’s accusers, said the overturning of the criminal case in Pennsylvania “was on technical grounds” and doesn’t negate social change forced by the #MeToo movement.
“It’s always two steps forward and one step backward in the women’s movement,” she said. “But the good news is we’re moving forward. We’re not going to be deterred.”
Allred and other women’s advocates said the decision doesn’t invalidate the experiences of Cosby’s accusers. The court tied its decision to an agreement between Cosby and a previous prosecutor, ruling he was denied a fair trial because of it. While Cosby has maintained his innocence, the justices did not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence against him.
Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center and cofounder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, said, “No court in the country can strip [the accusers] of the courage and resolve they’ve shown.”
”What it does affirm,” she said, “is the need for a new vision of justice built on removing the barriers and rewriting the narratives that silence survivors every day.”
To do that, more prosecutors must bring charges in sexual assault cases, even if a victim’s word is the only evidence they have, said Jennifer Storm, the former Pennsylvania victim advocate. She worked with Cosby’s accusers who went to court in Montgomery County, and said she’d spoken Wednesday with five of them, conveying that “this doesn’t challenge the facts of the case.”
“They got justice when the jury said ‘guilty,’” she said. “They got justice the day they knew he was spending his first night incarcerated. Those moments don’t go away.”
Constand has a book scheduled for release in September called The Moment. It’s about her experiences with Cosby and testifying against him in court.
In a tweet earlier this month, she said she was “embarking on an era of healing.”
She and many of the women who accused Cosby of sexual violence have said they formed a bond through years of legal proceedings. Janice Baker-Kinney, who was one of the five women to testify against Cosby in addition to Constand, said she keeps in touch with several of those women and considers them close friends.
”We still have a great support system,” she said, “and we’ll get through this the same way when we first came out with our truths.”
Burns came forward in 2015 with her allegation, saying that in 1970, Cosby invited her to his hotel room. She was a model, and he was filming I Spy. She had a Scotch on the rocks, she said, and “started feeling woozy and not in control” before he sexually assaulted her.
While she was heartened during the #MeToo movement that her story was public, she said it was hard to find solace in that on Wednesday, saying, “It seems like the powerful can always find a way out.”
Still, she maintained a glimmer of hope.
“We did what we could, and we still might,” she said. “You know what? You never know what tomorrow’s going to bring, good or bad.”