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“Bill Cosby, Tamir Rice, And The Power Of Prosecutors”: The Discretion Of A Single Unaccountable Prosecutor

What do Bill Cosby and Tamir Rice’s have in common? Their cases reveal the immense power of prosecutors.

Consider the fact that in 2005, Andrea Constand told police that Bill Cosby gave her drugs and sexually assaulted her. Why wasn’t he charged? The prosecutor didn’t think there was enough evidence.

Ten years later, Cosby is charged. Why? Partly because of new bits of evidence—Cosby’s admission that he sometimes gave women drugs in order to have sex with them, and at least 50 other accusations against him. But mostly, because now there’s a different prosecutor, Kevin Steele.

These are judgment calls, in 2005 and 2015.

Now consider the cases of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. None of the police officers responsible for their deaths were ever charged—not convicted—charged. In all three cases, prosecutors practically told grand juries not to indict.

In Ferguson, Robert McCulloch decided to simply present all the evidence to the grand jury, rather than make a case against Officer Darren Wilson. In Staten Island, Darren Donovan, a Republican with extensive ties to the police department, failed to secure an indictment against Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death. And most recently, in Cleveland, Tim McGinty stated openly that he didn’t believe anyone should be charged in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Set aside, for the moment, the facts of these cases. What’s striking in all of them is that county prosecutors and district attorneys, singlehandedly and without oversight, decide the fates of the accused. More judgment calls, unreviewed and unreviewable.

True, there is some oversight: most of these prosecutors are elected. If voters don’t like how they’re doing (or not doing) their jobs, they can vote them out of office. Indeed, in the case of Bill Cosby, then-D.A. Bruce Castor’s decision not to indict in 2005 became an issue in his election battle with Kevin Steele this year.

But is this really “oversight”? As The Daily Beast reported last September, voters often know next to nothing about the candidates running for positions as prosecutors or judges. Turnout is extremely low, especially in off years. And when voters are paying attention, they are bamboozled by the only campaign message that seems to work: “tough on crime.”

This year, for example, Steele ran on his “98 percent conviction rate” and “tough sentences for sexual predators.”

That’s what people want, right? They see prosecutors as agents of the criminal justice system, and everyone wants less crime.

This leads to two perverse incentives for prosecutors. First, they have an incentive to over-charge criminal defendants and secure convictions more than justice. Second, they have an incentive not to charge police officers, who after all are fighting crime every day, and with whom they work closely on a daily basis.

In principle, if Officers Pantaleo, Wilson, and Loehmann violated the law, then they are criminals. But in practice, they are policemen, and perceived as the opposite of criminals. Voters who want to get tough on crime do not want to get tough on cops.

So not only is there no meaningful oversight of prosecutors, but the oversight that does exist is skewed to specific outcomes and behaviors, not impartiality and performance.

Now back to Cosby. If you pay close attention to what Steele said this week, you’ll notice that he went out of his way to mention the new evidence that has come to light in the last twelve months. “A prosecutor’s job is to follow the evidence wherever it leads and whenever it comes to light,” he said, announcing the arrest.

In part, this was to explain the nearly twelve-year gap between the crime and the charge. But in large part, it was to explain why Cosby is being charged in 2015, but wasn’t in 2005.

And what is that new evidence? Only what is known as “habit evidence”: that Cosby admitted to drugging and having sex with other women. But not Constand—however ludicrous it may seem, Cosby’s position is that she consented.

Is habit evidence really enough to reopen a closed case and file charges? Again, that’s another judgment call. Like Judge Robreno’s decision to unseal the damning deposition records, Steele’s decision was basically up to him.

Of course, Steele chose to make it an election issue as well. He’d look foolish if, having just accused Bruce Castor of doing nothing, he did nothing too. But again, that was Steele’s decision. Just as prosecuting “America’s Dad” in 2005 might have made Castor look bad, prosecuting America’s Rapist in 2015 makes Steele look good.

We imagine that district attorneys and other prosecutors are motivated by truth, justice, and the American way. But in fact, they are elected officials who paint in broad strokes for a mostly-ignorant public; who, unlike judges, cannot be held accountable for their misconduct by oversight boards; and who exercise discretion so broad that the disposition of justice often lies entirely within their judgment.

Finally, of course, Tamir Rice and Bill Cosby have more in common than under-zealous prosecutors: both African American males, one quite young and one quite old, operating in a system in which 95 percent of prosecutors are white and local police forces are 88 percent white.

For decades, Cosby was protected by his wealth, celebrity, class, and connections, particularly at Temple University. But he is the exception, not the rule. Black men comprise 6 percent of the U.S. population, but 35 percent of the prison population. They receive sentences roughly 10 percent more severe than white defendants convicted of identical crimes. And when they are perceived to be older than they are, bigger than they are, more dangerous than they are, or more violent than they are, their 88 percent-white police officers and 95 percent-white-prosecutors exercise “discretion” in remarkably similar ways.

The United States is the only country in the world that elects prosecutors based on sloganeering and then holds them to no standard other than majority whim. After nearly 12 years, Bill Cosby has indeed been charged with a crime. But only because a prosecutor decided to do so—this time.

 

By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, January 1, 2016

January 3, 2016 Posted by | Bill Cosby, Prosecutors, Tamir Rice | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Tell The Truth And Shame The Devil”: Why Diehard Defenders Will Never Stop Believing Bill Cosby Is Innocent

My grandmother loved her Jesus, her husband, and her pastor—and not always in that order. Say a foul word about one or the other and you had better tell it walking.

Bill Cosby is not a pastor and, if your name is not Camille, he almost certainly is not your husband. But for some people, it seems, Cosby is a god—deified based on his career as a legendary comedian and actor, a Hollywood icon who generously invested countless millions in historically black institutions.

When I was invited to write a cover story for Ebony magazine and offer an analysis of that legacy, I accepted the assignment with both honor and trepidation. My focus was not on the allegations but on how Cosby’s widely acclaimed, record-breaking television show came to be the standard against which black families would be measured—by others and by us. What social model did it reinforce, and does its power endure in the face of Cosby’s crumbling public reputation?

Over the course of 72 breathtaking hours, I interviewed dozens of thought leaders, cultural experts, industry veterans, and academicians about that legacy and how deeply it was intertwined with his on-screen fictional persona, Heathcliff Huxtable. An excerpt of the cover story was released online Thursday afternoon.

As the cover art began to circulate on social media, both support and pushback began almost immediately. The cover, a framed photograph of the fictional Huxtable family behind shattered glass, evoked strong feelings, even before the 3,000-word story itself hit newsstands. Some voices were glad to see the story about how Cosby’s legacy and that of his alter ego, Cliff, have been challenged in recent months. Others cried foul, angered because they believe Cosby himself is “under attack.”

“It’s difficult for black people to accept the idea that Cosby could be guilty…” University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb told me recently. “Certainly the long history of prominent African Americans being torn down in public lends itself to the idea that Cosby is being targeted because of his wealth and influence.”

I have been reporting on and writing about the impact of the rape allegations since comedian Hannibal Buress unceremoniously outed Cosby last year. Truth be told, Cosby’s sexual proclivities were the biggest un-kept secret in Hollywood. When he came and left town, people talked. So Buress was only saying what many already believed.

My grandmother might have been proud to see my writing land on the cover of Ebony, long heralded as the bible of black celebrity, culture, and social progress. Inarguably, though, she would not have approved of me writing about a man she revered in her living days. Still, even in her disappointment, Grandma Alice would have been quick to say, “Tell the truth and shame the Devil.”

I stuffed away my own experiences, forgot for a moment that I had been the victim of child molestation and later drugged and raped by a high school football coach. I forgot who I was and focused on the women. I interviewed two dozen people who are experts on everything from rape culture to television programming, from the evolution of parenting to the impact of the Reagan-era “war on drugs.”

I had almost grown numb to the increasing number of women who claim Cosby drugged and raped them. The allegations stretch back nearly 50 years and, if the allegations are true, he did not discriminate.

They women are black, white, middle class, wealthy, and poor. Some are household names, while others could slip in and out of the local grocery store with little notice. They have long hair, short hair. They are graying brunettes and strawberry blondes. There is even one outsize Afro. They are former supermodels, actresses, talent agency secretaries, dancers, and cocktail servers.

Frankly, I thought I was over it. I thought I had successfully put it all behind me. Then came Thursday.

As I scrolled through my Twitter mentions, raising a brow (and a mute button) to objectors who had plenty to say but who had not read the unreleased story, a colleague circulated a related news item. In the middle of our afternoon editorial meeting, I sat staring at my laptop.

“She was a gawt-damned kid,” I muttered to myself.

I kept saying it, over and over again, as I read and reread the news. Another woman had come forward Wednesday to file a civil lawsuit. It appears Renita Chaney Hill was, at the time of her alleged assault, the youngest Cosby victim.

Hill says she was still in high school when she met him. In the lawsuit, she accuses him of plying her with alcohol that caused her to black out and says she woke up “oftentimes nude, disheveled, confused and disoriented.”

She was a teenager, just a couple of years older than me. “She was a gawt-damned kid,” I said again.

Now about 50 years old, Hill is suing because she believes Cosby, his attorney, and his wife made particularly defamatory public statements after she went public with her story. According to the court filing, Hill is alleging defamation and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” She claims their actions were “egregious in nature.”

To say I was disappointed about the initial round of allegations is an understatement, even if I have always been bothered by Cosby’s brand of respectability politics. For the record, I do not question the veracity of the women’s stories based on the number of years it took them to come forward. After all, it took me nearly three decades to speak up about what happened to me.

“Mr. Cosby’s vast resources and high-priced team retaliating against his accusers—that deterred women coming forward for years, and still scares them even now,” Lisa Bloom, a lawyer for model and Cosby accuser Janice Dickinson, told me as I was researching the Ebony cover piece.

“When women speak their truth out loud, it is empowering,” Bloom continued. “Let the perpetrator hide his head in shame. Let him close the door and remain quiet.”

Dr. Cobb was right when he said, “It’s too early to tell what Cosby’s legacy will be ultimately.” It is a complicated question, but one that deserves to be asked.

However, if your defense of Cosby means blindly accepting his innocence, if it involves defaming, marginalizing, and lobbing salacious personal attacks at his accusers: Tell it walking.

 

By: Goldie Taylor, The Daily Beast, October 15, 2015

October 17, 2015 Posted by | Bill Cosby, Black Families, Rape, Sexual Molestation | , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Stony Silence”: On Bill Cosby, Hard To Keep The Faith

A few weeks ago, I spent a delightful afternoon and evening with Bill Cosby. I was the emcee of a gala for historically black Claflin University, which is in my home town of Orangeburg, S.C.; Cosby was the headliner. Both of us were donating our time to a worthy cause.

It was just the second time I had met him, so I certainly don’t claim to know him well. It was apparent that he’s having serious problems with his eyesight; a young man was at his side to help him navigate. Otherwise, Cosby was just what you’d expect if you ever watched an episode of his eponymous television show — warm, funny, avuncular, mischievous, wise. He was Cliff Huxtable in winter.

Cosby does his stand-up routine sitting down these days, but he had the audience roaring. I was floored by his talent — the way he spun out multiple threads of narrative until he seemed hopelessly lost in digression, then somehow pulled everything together at the end. He’s still got it.

So was I having a jolly old time with a serial rapist?

It is possible that all the women who accuse Cosby of sexual predation are lying, in the sense that anything not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible. But it doesn’t seem very likely.

I confess that I’m having trouble squaring the allegations with the man I was with that day. I suspect many people may be experiencing the same kind of cognitive dissonance. Cosby has spent his long, groundbreaking career in the entertainment industry being such a good guy. How could he possibly be such a bad guy, too?

I still remember the electrifying night when “I Spy” debuted in 1965. It was the first network television series to feature an African American in a leading role, with Cosby co-starring alongside Robert Culp. They played a couple of secret agents who pretended to be an itinerant tennis pro (Culp) and his trainer (Cosby).

The writers made Cosby’s character the brainy one. “I Spy” never once, to my recollection, dealt head-on with the issue of race. It didn’t have to. Seeing an intelligent, well-spoken black character, with no hint of subservience or buffoonery, was statement enough.

Cosby’s image as a paragon reached its apotheosis nearly two decades later in “The Cosby Show,” which began its eight-year run in 1984. One of the greatest sitcoms in television history, “Cosby” took viewers into the lives of a middle-class African-American family. The cultural references were specific and revelatory — familiar music, historically black colleges, the “code-switching” that upwardly mobile African Americans learned to perform. Oh, and the sweaters.

“The Cosby Show” was a soapbox. Cosby used it to preach universal truths about love and family but also to deliver targeted messages about the value of education for African Americans.

In recent years, his insistence on the theme of black self-empowerment has bordered on the shrill. At times, it seemed to me, he went overboard in “blaming the victim.” But his heart was in the right place.

Or seemed to be.

How am I supposed to reconcile this history with allegations of sexual misconduct and rape that span more than three decades? Five women, including supermodel Janice Dickinson, have come forward in recent days to charge that Cosby lured them on the pretext of mentoring their careers, plied them with alcohol and perhaps some unknown drug and forced them to have sex when they were unable to resist.

A 2005 civil suit by a Philadelphia woman alleging that Cosby sexually assaulted her — and offered her money to keep quiet about the attack — was settled out of court.

It is important to note that Cosby has never been charged with any crime. It is also important to note that statutes of limitations have run out on most, if not all, of the alleged attacks. It may be unfair, but a rape that goes formally unreported for too long is no longer legally considered a rape.

Is it fair to Cosby, then, that his alleged victims come forward now, knowing they will never have to prove anything in court? Cosby’s defenders should be aware that some of the women have spoken publicly before; the difference is that now they’re being listened to.

Cosby’s new sitcom project has been canceled. “The Cosby Show” has been yanked from the rotation on TVLand. I’d like to believe the man I met is incapable of such monstrous acts. But his stony silence makes it hard to keep the faith.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 20, 2014

November 24, 2014 Posted by | Bill Cosby, Rape, Violence Against Women | , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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