NORRISTOWN, Pa. (Reuters) - As Bill Cosby approached a Pennsylvania courthouse for the beginning of his retrial on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting a one-time friend, a bare-breasted protester ran toward him shouting: “Women’s lives matter.”
Later, when testimony began, a woman who says Cosby accosted her when she was 17 looked directly at him from the witness stand and blurted out: “You know what you did, Mr Cosby.” Her break with decorum drew a swift admonishment from the judge, but it was too late. Jurors and reporters had been listening with rapt attention.
In contrast to Cosby’s first trial, outbursts and protests, both inside and outside the courtroom, have unfolded as a second jury hears the sexual assault case against the man once known as “America’s Dad.” At least one protest group promises more theatrics to come.
The attention-grabbing incidents exemplify the new sense of outrage over sexual assault and misconduct that has boiled over since the emergence of the #MeToo movement in the months after Cosby’s first trial ended with a hung jury in June.
“Women don’t have faith that court proceedings will bring about actual justice,” said women’s rights activist Jaclyn Friedman, a writer whose books include “Yes Means Yes!” “They are not content to just let it play out.”
Cosby, 80, denies all wrongdoing in the current case involving Andrea Constand, 45, in 2004 and with any of about 50 other women who have leveled similar accusations against him over the years. He says that any sexual contact was consensual.
With society more willing to listen, woman have become more inclined to speak out, said Professor Sharon Marcus of Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality. They see the retrial as an opportunity to influence public opinion and shape attitudes towards sexual violence.
“Women are angry about being victimized several times over: by abusers; by legal systems that that are biased favor of men; and by conventions that tell women to be polite and tactful but don’t protect polite and tactful women from being harmed,” she said.
The first trial was largely bereft of demonstrations, except for the occasional protester outside the courthouse. Only one day during jury deliberations did women who had accused the comedian square off on the courthouse steps against Cosby supporters carrying signs.
So far at the retrial, any Cosby supporters have not made themselves known outside the courtroom, except for the actor’s spokesman Andrew Wyatt, who has addressed the media.
On the first day, the bare-breasted protester who ran at Cosby was Nicholle Rochelle, a member of the European feminist group FEMEN and an actress who had appeared on “The Cosby Show” as a child.
“FEMEN’s action at the Cosby trial is part of a broad strategy of hunting celebrity perpetrators and facing them with the truth,” Inna Shevchenko, the group’s leader, said in an email response to Reuters. “I won’t hesitate to threaten him with constant feminism revenge.”
Five of Cosby’s other accusers were allowed to testify against him at the ongoing trial, four more than in his first trial. Constand’s accusation is the only one recent enough to be the subject of criminal prosecution.
The outburst from the witness stand by one of the five, aspiring actress Chelan Lasha, prompted the defense to request a mistrial, but Judge Steven O’Neill refused.
He did the same when the defense complained about coffee cup sleeves reading “Believe and Support Survivors” that a cafe across the street from the courthouse was passing out. He said jurors had not seen the slogan.
In one of several orders aimed at maintaining decorum, the court has banned any attire inside the courtroom that would indicate support for either side.
But that did not stop protesters outside court, including a woman dressed in a crimson robe and white bonnet inspired by the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which explores misogyny and female subjugation.
Standing at the barricades ringing the court, she held a sign reading “Because Justice Knows No Time Limit, #EndRapeSOL” to denounce statutes of limitations on sexual assault.
One morning before Cosby arrived for the day’s proceeding, a work crew scrubbed walkways in front of the courtroom after graffiti artists covered them with protest slogans scrawled in chalk the previous night.
One of them read, “Women’s Rights Movement This Way,” with a large arrow pointing to the courthouse.
Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Writing by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Cynthia Osterman