Disgraced US television icon Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison by a judge on Tuesday and branded a “sexually violent predator” for assaulting a woman at his Philadelphia mansion 14 years ago.
The 81-year-old, once beloved as “America’s Dad,” is the first celebrity convicted and sentenced for a sex crime since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein ushered in the #MeToo movement and America’s reckoning with sexual harassment.
Convicted five months ago of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand, a former university basketball administrator, he showed no reaction when Judge Steven O’Neill handed down the sentence in a court in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
It makes him one of the famous Americans ever ordered to serve a prison sentence, in a country where fame and unlimited wealth spent on brilliant lawyers have tended to help celebrities avoid jail in the past.
The sentence means that Cosby could spend at least three years in prison, but up to 10. While the defence asked their client to remain under house arrest pending an appeal, the judge ordered him to be remanded into custody.
Looking at Constand, seated in the gallery, O’Neill referenced the words “no, no, no” that she heard in her head as the assault took place in January 2004, and she was powerless to fight him off after being sedated.
“You didn’t hear those words,” said O’Neill. “I heard those words. The jury heard those words.”
Prosecutors had demanded five to 10 years in prison, after the three counts of aggravated indecent assault were merged into one, served in a state prison, together with a $25,000 fine and the full cost of the prosecution.
Defence lawyers had argued that Cosby should be confined to house arrest, as he has been since his conviction, arguing that he is too old and too frail — the actor says he is legally blind — to endure a correctional facility.
– ‘No one above the law’ –
“You were convicted of a very serious crime,” O’Neill told Cosby. “No one is above the law,” he added. “No one should be treated differently.”
The judge said he recognized the defendant’s age and blindness, but said they could not be the determining factors. Cosby has been confined to his home on a $1 million bail for nearly three years.
“The defendant is in need of correctional treatment,” O’Neill said.
Earlier on Tuesday, the judge designated Cosby a “sexually violent predator,” which will force him to register with police for the rest of his life and to submit to mandatory counselling.
Pennsylvania law defines such an offender as having “a mental abnormality or personality disorder” that makes them likely to engage in repeat crimes.
“Do you understand that the judge has determined that you qualify as a sexually violent predator?” one of the prosecutors asked.
“Yes,” replied Cosby, once adored by millions for his defining role on “The Cosby Show,” dressed in a navy pin-striped suit, white shirt and red tie.
Psychologist Timothy Foley, testifying for the defence, said that the risk of Cosby re-offending was “extraordinarily low.”
– ‘Crushed my spirit’ –
But a member of the state board recommending the designation, said that it was “possible” he had already met “a future victim”.
“Being blind doesn’t make you unconscious,” she told the court on Monday, on the first of his extended two-day sentence hearing.
On Monday, chief prosecutor Kevin Steele castigated Cosby for expressing no remorse.
Once a towering figure in late 20th century American popular culture and the first black actor to grace primetime US television, he brought no character witnesses, declined to address the court or emphasize past years of philanthropic work as mitigating circumstances in his favour.
Around 60 women, many of them onetime aspiring actresses and models, have publicly branded Cosby as a calculating, serial predator who plied victims with sedatives and alcohol to bed them over four decades.
But only one case — that involving Constand, a former Temple University employee turned massage therapist — was recent enough to be prosecuted.
“Bill Cosby took my beautiful, healthy young spirit and crushed it. He robbed me of my health and vitality, my open nature, and my trust in myself and others,” she wrote in a five-page victim impact statement.
“When the sexual assault happened, I was a young woman brimming with confidence and looking forward to a future bright with possibilities.
“Now, almost 15 years later, I’m a middle-aged woman who’s been stuck in a holding pattern for most of her adult life, unable to heal fully or to move forward.”