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Bill Cosby conviction signals demise of sexual assault stereotypes, rise of #MeToo

Click to play video 'Janice Dickinson testifies at Bill Cosby retrial' Janice Dickinson testifies at Bill Cosby retrial
WATCH: The prosecution presented a string of Bill Cosby accusers on the witness stand Thursday in the fourth day of the comedian's sexual-assault retrial in suburban Philadelphia. Two more, including former model and reality TV star Janice Dickinson, took the stand – Apr 12, 2018

The historic conviction of Bill Cosby on three counts of sexual assault may spark change for victims who are scrutinized on the stand.

Cosby’s defence was slammed for lobbing an aggressive “character assassination” campaign against chief accuser Andrea Constand and the other five women who offered their testimony during the trial.

READ MORE: Bill Cosby could spend rest of his life in prison after guilty verdict

“That character assassination that Ms. Bliss put those women through was shameful, was utterly shameful,” she said. “She is the exact reason why women and men (who are victims) of sexual assault don’t report these crimes,” said prosecutor Kristen Feden during the trial.

The defence team consisted of Kathleen Bliss and Tom Mesereau, who harshly criticized many of the women who testified against Cosby. Bliss, for example, dismissed each of the women as obsessed with becoming famous. Bliss and Mesereau together called Constand a “pathological liar, a “con artist,” and “not a good girl.”

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Bliss chastised Constand for “cavorting around with a married man old enough to be her grandfather.” She questioned the “personal morality” of one accuser and called another, model Janice Dickinson, a “failed starlet” and “aged-out model” who “sounds as though she slept with every man on the planet.”

Critics said the defence team went too far.

Tracy Tamborra, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, who once ran a rape crisis centre in Jersey City called these remarks “nauseating.”

She noted that “in a world where women are either whores or saints,” the counsel representing Cosby put forth a good defence.

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Kristen Houser of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center said that “they’re playing on the same old myths that have been protecting perpetrators for centuries.” She said the defence’s closing argument was filled with “rampant and ingrained” misconceptions about sexual assault and victim behaviour.

“It was not only an attack on these six accusers,” Houser said, “it was a verbal slap to survivors all across this country.”

She hopes, however, that such a landmark conviction coupled with the intensity of the #MeToo movement over the past year, could put pressure on lawyers to steer clear of this kind of character targeting in sexual assault cases.

READ MORE: Universities rescind honorary degrees awarded to Bill Cosby following guilty verdict

“I’m also so optimistic about young people’s motivation to change cultural norms. Throughout much of history, we have seen law advance before social norms. In essence, the law took the lead in pushing people towards equity, towards social justice. In the last 10 years, I’m seeing social movements push the law.”

She emphasizes though, that as much as these comments seemed like a throwback to an era where sexual assault was pushed under the rug, it’s rare for sexual assault cases with little physical evidence to go to trial at all — and only five per cent of all sexual assault cases ever make it that far. This, Tamborra continues, has a lot to do with the social conditioning of the prosecutors who “hold the keys to the criminal justice system.”

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“I think it’s the beginning of a change, but the change is not quite here yet until this generation of prosecutors retires. The social norm will be different. Once you have a younger generation of prosecutors who were socially conditioned during the #MeToo movement, we will start to see the reality of female victims of violent crime,” she said.

Cosby was convicted of three counts of sexual assault in a retrial after the first hearing of the case ended in a hung jury. Constand was the primary accuser in the case, though five women testified and over 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault.

— With files from The Canadian Press