It is hard to forget the day I learned Bill Cosby was a rapist. I watched the Cosby Show, Bill Cosby was my TV dad. Dr. and Claire Huxtable were my TV parents. My parents watched him when he was on Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and I watched him when he was on Little Bill. He influenced just about all of the world’s favorite comedians. His clean humor was something new and something families could watch together. He broke barriers for African American men on television. He was an inspiration to many and a father to those who needed one. He was a legend.
“It can’t be true,” echoed around the world when the allegations came to light, when we saw the real Bill Cosby. But now even referring to clothing items like Cosby sweaters feels wrong: laughing at the Cosby Show feels wrong, anything concerning him feels tainted. He let America down.
The July cover of New York Magazine featured photographs of the 35 alleged victims of Cosby and was incredibly powerful. Not only are the women of varying age, race and class, the only similarities between them is that they were all in black clothing and they had at one time in the last four decades been allegedly assaulted by Cosby. Online and in print they have portraits taken in both black and white. It was a stark contrast and a symbol of power and solidarity.
On the radio, online and even in personal conversation people were more outraged about the cover than of Cosby’s rape accusations. People said New York Magazine was taking it too far not that Cosby was a monster.
Commentators, pundits and social critics all had something to say about it. But just about everyone was also asking: why aren’t we trying to charge him for rape? A lot of it comes from the statute of limitations.
The endless stream of articles and reports from every media source echoed the same sad statement. “Cosby would not be tried because the statute of limitations had run out.” If you aren’t familiar with this it is the time limit in which a prosecutor has to file a legal claim. There are statutes of limitations for many different types of crime such as debt, robbery, treason, forgery, just to name a few. These laws have been around since Classical Athens where there was a statute of limitations of five years for all crimes except for murder.
Statutes of limitations are set up for different reasons. These are set up primarily to protect defendants; it obviously favors them as opposed to the plaintiff. The idea of these laws is that plaintiffs should deal with the crime committed against them in a proper way and in proper time. According to Halsbury’s Laws of England (4th edition) a long-dormant claim against a defendant has “more cruelty than justice.” This makes sense for some lesser crimes especially when decades have passed.
Murder does not have a statute of limitations, which makes perfect legal and moral sense. In many states other crimes such as assault of all kinds, kidnapping and arson have no statute of limitations, which also makes perfect sense. However some states have astounding contradictions when it comes to this rule. For instance California and Arizona do not have a statute of limitations on crimes involving public money or public records but California does have a 10 year limitation on rape. Why in California are money crimes considered worse than sex crimes?
There should not be a statute of limitation on rape. Thankfully most states do not have a statute of limitations for rape. Also many states that do have statutes of limitations also have exceptions for DNA and victims under a certain age. Actually in most states there isn’t a limitation for people under the age of 18 or at least an elongated limitation statute.
Statutes of limitations vary state by state and can be drastically different depending on what state you live in. Some states measure the length of its limitations by the class of the crime. For example rape or murder is a Class A felony so there would not be a statute of limitations. But a lot of states don’t follow this logic and have seemingly random limitations for each crime. Also when it comes to rape, states have their own definitions of the crime. Some definitions can exclude married couples or partial penetration. Because of this it’s not really easier to commit the crime but it is easier to escape justice for it.
For instance the statute of limitations for rape in Minnesota is 3 years but if you live in some surrounding states such as South Dakota and Wisconsin there is no statute of limitations.
It also varies depending on whether or not the case is civil or criminal. It depends on the age of the victim, the assailant and relationship of the victim and the assailant. How the assault occurred, for how long, and how often are also factors on limitations.
Also the statute of limitations used to be different at different times in history. In May this year, Governor Brian Sandoval signed a bill into law extending Nevada’s statute of limitations for sexual assault from four years to 20 years. Arizona used to have a 7 year limitation on sexual assault as recent as 1997 and now there is no limitation, if you do not know your assailant. In most cases when the statute of limitations has changed in a certain states victims still cannot try their assailants it only applies to new rape victims. For example, New York now doesn’t have a statute of limitations for rape but it used to be five years long. This means for most of the Cosby victims who were assaulted in New York between the 1960s and the 1990s the five year statute of limitations still applies to them and has run out.
All of this affects many people who have been the victims of sexual assault, especially the alleged Cosby victims:
Marcella Tate was allegedly assaulted in 1975 at the Playboy Mansion where the statute of limitations is now 10 years. It has been 30 years past the time Cosby could have been charged.
Linda Joy Traitz was allegedly assaulted in 1969 on a beach in Los Angeles where the statute of limitations is now 10 years. It has been 36 years past the time Cosby could have been charged.
Beth Ferrier was allegedly assaulted in 1984 in Denver, Colorado where the statute of limitations is now 10 years. It has been 21 years past the time Cosby could have been charged.
PJ Masten was allegedly assaulted in 1979 at the Whitehall Hotel in Illinois where the statute of limitations is 10 years. It has been 26 years past the time Cosby could have been charged.
Sarita Butterfield was allegedly assault in 1977 in Cosby’s family home in Massachusetts where the statute of limitations is 15 years. It has been 23 years past the time Cosby could have been charged.
These are only five women whose statutes of limitations have run out. Most of the 35 victims are prohibited from trial because of this law. Cosby is not only accused of rape and sexual assault but rape of a minor (some of his victims were under the age of 18), drugging multiple women and just being completely despicable, preying on women he considered vulnerable by offering help in their careers, acting like a father figure or prying into their personal lives to get closer. Many of these women were aspiring models or actresses or Playboy bunnies, people that wouldn’t have been believed because of their jobs. A lot of the assaults had occurred where there was drinking or drug use, even more of a reason these women wouldn’t be believed.
I hate to admit it but I could have been easy prey for Cosby. Before I knew all this I would have loved to interview Cosby. As a fan of his work I would have loved to spend time alone with him. At one time I would have accepted a drink if he had offered me one. I could have been Sammie Mays who was allegedly assaulted in 1987. “We were career-oriented women,” she said. “That’s how Bill Cosby gained access to us.”
However, despite the 35 accusations and the parade of TV executives canceling reruns of the Cosby show and his stand-up routines, Cosby was at one time worth $400 million and it is unlikely he will serve any jail time.
People also ask: why didn’t these women come forward? First of all, some of these women did. They either were not believed or they had settlements from Cosby out of court. Andrea Constand took her claim to the police in 2005 and several of these 35 women came forward as Jane Does.
I have had family members, close friends, colleagues and neighbors—both male and female—who have been raped or sexually assaulted. A lot of them — too many in fact — were too afraid to tell authorities. Why wouldn’t they be? One relative of mine told me “You just didn’t do that back then; everyone would think it was your fault.” But it’s 2015 not 1950. In 2012, a 14 year old Missouri girl accused a popular boy at school of sexual assault and her house was burned down. Many victims are cyberbullied and harassed when they come forward. In Jon Krakauer’s recent book, Missoula, he references several victims who were harassed and threatened for accusing popular football players with sexual assault. He drew a picture of a community that cared more about football than the safety of young women.
If that isn’t enough, listen to the statements given from Cosby’s victims in the New York Magazine article.
“My mother didn't believe me initially, either,” said Sunni Welles, allegedly assaulted in the mid-1960s.
“I told my supervisor at the Playboy Club what he did to me, and you know what she said to me? She said: ‘You do know that that’s Hefner’s best friend, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She says to me: ‘Nobody’s going to believe you. I suggest you shut your mouth,’” said PJ Masten, allegedly assaulted in 1979.
“I saw that there were a lot of negative responses being posted against Barbara Bowman and Joan Tarshis and Tamara Green and Andrea Constand, grouping them in a historical reference to claims that “white women” have made in the past, that weren’t truthful, about being raped by a black man,” said Jewel Allison allegedly assaulted in the last 1980s. “But unfortunately with this case, I knew that there was a very strong possibility that these women were telling the truth, because I had had my own negative experience with Bill Cosby.”
“Seeing bits and pieces on the news and then overhearing some women talk about the girls in a negative way — it infuriated me,” said Autumn Burns allegedly assaulted in 1970. “They were saying that they were doing it just for publicity; they must be getting all kinds of money. I interrupted them. ‘I’m one of them,’ I said.”
There are plenty of reasons why these women would not want to come forward. Who would believe America’s dad was a sex offender? At least in this magazine article they could have their story told, they were supported and believed. So don’t tell me New York Magazine was taking things too far. They gave him at least partial justice when a court couldn’t.
Changing the statute of limitations would not stop harassment of rape victims and would not stop rape. But when laws don’t respect victims, society doesn’t feel like they have to either. When rape is prosecuted like a lesser crime it will be treated like a lesser crime.
If you read the accounts of the Cosby victims or almost any rape victims they were ashamed, depressed and ruined. Lili Bernard became suicidal after Cosby allegedly raped her in the early 1990s. He had preyed on her even before she was guest star on The Cosby Show and the only reason she came forward was because she finally “felt safe.”
According to Rape Response Services, 50 to 90 percent of rape victims will develop post-traumatic stress disorder during their lifetime. Women who have experienced some sort of sexual violence or assault are significantly more likely to have lowered mental and physical health as well as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, difficulty sleeping and diabetes. But that’s not all. Rape victims are four times more likely to contemplate suicide and 13 times more likely to attempt suicide after a rape than non-violent crimes.
Many of Cosby’s victims were allegedly assaulted in California. If there was no statute of limitations many of these women could file now. At the time, Nevada’s statute of limitations was four years and now it has been changed to 20 but many of these victims were attacked more than 20 years ago.
California and Nevada aren’t even the worst states when it comes to this. When it comes to first degree rape or first degree sexual assault for victims over 18 -- which many of the Cosby victims were -- Colorado, Illinois, Montana, Texas and Washington all have 10 year statutes. Maine has an 8 year statute while North Dakota has a seven year statute. Oregon, Vermont, Arkansas, New Hampshire and Hawaii have six year statutes. Connecticut has a five-year statute. Florida has a myriad of extenuating circumstances and exemptions including if the assault was by someone you knew or if it was violent or if it was date rape, but generally the state has a four year statute for first degree rape. Minnesota wins the prize for lowest statute of limitations at three years.
What this translates to victims and even assailants is that in less than a decade the crime committed won’t matter and did not happen in the eyes of the law.
This feeling is best described by Beth Ferrier, an alleged victim of Cosby in 1984. In 2005, she was also one of the first women to join Andrea Constand’s lawsuit against Cosby. She was assaulted in Colorado where there is only a 10 year statute of limitations.
“It’s still like a slap in the face until we actually have our day in court and help the others who are getting to go to court, or we get the statute of limitations to change,” she said in her New York Magazine interview. “It makes me really angry. I can’t feel happiness. I felt very sad and alone. But I’m not afraid of him anymore.”