Gloria Allred is one of the first people I met in the broadcast news business. It was January 1995, and I was on television for the first time, ever. We were appearing live, on CNN & Company, to talk about the OJ Simpson trial. I was there in my role as a criminal defense attorney—to argue for the presumption of innocence, despite the overwhelming evidence piling up in the case against Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
Allred represented the Brown family and she was having none of it. And she was fierce.
“I am a lawyer, too, and I know all about the presumption of innocence. But you have to understand, Jami, that there was a history of domestic violence, here. Nicole called the police, repeatedly, for protection from Mr. Simpson during his rampages. There are photos of her injuries. There are recordings of the 911 calls. But Mr. Simpson was arrested only once. We need to listen to women when they ask for our help,” she said.
Twenty-seven years later, Gloria Allred is still fierce. Her clients are almost exclusively victims of domestic violence, employment discrimination, and sexual violence. And while we tangled throughout the Simpson case (he was acquitted of the criminal charges in 1995, but with Allred’s support, the victims’ families won a $33.5 million judgement against him in civil court), we have become friendly over the years. Despite our different perspectives, I have learned a lot from this advocate for women and victims.
So I reached out to Allred last week after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his Pennsylvania home in 2004. At the time of the assault, Constand was a young woman who worked in the Athletic department of Cosby’s alma mater, Temple University in Philadelphia. But by the time he was charged in 2015, dozens of women had come forward alleging they, too, had been assaulted by “America’s Dad.”
As a Black attorney trained in constitutional and criminal law, I analyze cases through the prism of a justice system rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. Add to that, horrific charges leveled against another African American icon, and I leaned into the same compartmentalized legal analysis that served me so well during the OJ Simpson trial.
But I am also a woman and have experienced first-hand the ways in which we are, all too often, unheard — our allegations of rape and sexual assault discounted, devalued, or disbelieved. I wanted to hear what America’s foremost victims’ right’s attorney had to say about the court’s decision in the Cosby case, the impact on the #MeToo movement, and her take on the role that race plays in cases like these.
THE FIRST CALLS ABOUT COSBY
Allred told me she started hearing from Cosby accusers as early as 2014. She eventually represented 33 women who alleged they were assaulted or harassed by Cosby, over a span of decades. For most, however, it was too late to file a lawsuit. Too much time had passed.
The law can be tricky in this way. Statutes of limitations exist to protect the rights of those accused in criminal or even civil court. Witnesses die. Memories fade. Evidence deteriorates. Generally, these time limitations ensure fairness for the accused. But they also foreclose the legitimate claims of those who may not have come forward for fear of reprisal, feelings of shame, or an underappreciation that what has happened to them was wrong. The women coming to Allred about Cosby had stories going back decades — too far back to meet most statute of limitations requirements.
One woman, however, still had a viable claim. That woman was Andrea Constand.
CONSTAND’S CASE AGAINST COSBY
Constand took her allegations that Cosby drugged and sexually violated her, in his home, to local prosecutors in Montgomery County (Cosby’s home is located in Elkins Park, in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia). Specifically, she alleged that he’d offered her three pills as an herbal remedy for stress and she soon passed out. She further alleged that Cosby rubbed her breasts and genital areas and digitally penetrated her, meaning with his fingers. Despite her complaint and at least 13 other women with strikingly similar accounts, in February 2005, the county’s Bruce Castor, announced that he’d found “insufficient credible and admissible evidence,” to file charges against Cosby.
A former college basketball star, Constand was ready with her next move. Within days, she filed a lawsuit in civil court alleging battery, assault, infliction of emotional distress, defamation and invasion of privacy. Because of his clear understanding from Castor that the criminal case would not proceed, Cosby testified under oath in the civil case. Ultimately, Constand and Cosby settled for an undisclosed amount.
But before they did, Cosby made incriminating statements, under oath, admitting to using Quaaludes to engage in sex with women. He admitted to the digital penetration which, if non-consensual, would be grounds for a felony charge of aggravated indecent assault. The statute of limitations on that charge would not run out until January 2016. But again, Castor had said: No criminal case would be filed.
Lo and behold, a new District Attorney came to town. His name is Kevin Steele and he won the seat in 2015, after a hard-fought contest, narrowly edging out Castor’s bid for reelection. Steele campaigned on Castor’s failure to prosecute Cosby, and before he’d even assumed the office, Steele issued an arrest warrant for Cosby in December, 2015. Steele’s first prosecution of Cosby ended in a mistrial in 2017, when the jury deadlocked. But Steele kept coming like a dog with a bone. On April 16th, 2018, a second jury convicted Cosby of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. The judge sentenced the then-81-year-old to 3-to-10 years in prison.
But Cosby maintained his innocence throughout all of the allegations, his two trials, sentencing, and even as he was led from the courthouse in handcuffs. He vowed to keep fighting. He promised that one day he would walk out of that prison. And he did.
THE DECISION TO RELEASE COSBY.
Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Cosby should be released, and effectively barred the state from trying him again on any of the facts presented in the Constand case.
What happened in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. William Henry Cosby hasn’t been clearly explained by most media outlets, so let’s clarify.
The earliest allegations against Cosby go all the way back to 1965 in Beverly Hills. They span decades and multiple jurisdictions. Since only the recent cases had even a shot at viability, Allred and other victims’ rights advocates pressured prosecutors in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles to investigate the most recent ones. Only Constand’s survived the test of time.
And that, Allred explained, was the root of the problem. The incriminating statements Cosby made during the deposition in the civil case Constand brought against him were made in reliance on his agreement with DA Castor that there was not going to be a criminal prosecution.
Allred agreed, when pushed, that this is not a “technicality,” as has been widely reported — the court found Cosby had waived his constitutional right against self-incrimination and that it was, therefore, not permissible for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to put him on trial, given his statements made in reliance upon a prosecutor’s promise not to do so. But she also emphasized that this was not an evidentiary finding.
“Everyone should know the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania did not decide to vacate the judgment against Mr. Cosby based on their believing women, or not believing women, or based on the evidence,” she said. “They didn’t say he did it, or that he didn’t do what he is accused of, or was accused of doing. It was strictly a constitutional issue of due process — but not based on believing women or not.”
And in the end, free or not, Allred believes the once-beloved comedian will now be remembered for what he was charged with and convicted of doing.
“Let’s keep in mind that he was convicted by a jury of his peers of three felonies indecent aggravated sexual assault. And that will forever be part of his reputation. That will be part of his shame. That will be part of his obituary when it is written.”
THIS #METOO MOMENT
Allred acknowledged that there will likely not be any more criminal cases prosecuted against Cosby — due to the statute of limitations — and that her clients were, therefore, gravely disappointed by the decision. But, she pushed back on my suggestion that the decision might be a blow to progress made by the #MeToo movement.
“I think it’s frankly, a false issue. It’s an issue that has to be addressed, but if anything, a lot of women are even more willing to go forward,” she opined.
Allred represents people who alleged that they are victims in the R. Kelly Case (set for trial, this September, in federal court, in New York) and 20 accusers of Jeffrey Epstein (who died in New York while awaiting trial on on federal sex trafficking charges). Allred also represents many of the 22 accusers of Cuba Gooding Jr., in incidents that date back as long ago as 2003 and span six states including New York and California.
She also told me that Harvey Weinstein, who is currently incarcerated at the Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York, is going to be extradited “within a couple of weeks, or less,” from New York to Los Angeles. She represents two of the alleged Weinstein victims, as well as potential witnesses against him at the criminal trial in L.A.
“Not one of them has contacted me and said, ‘We’re not going to testify now because of what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did.’ So, the fact that not one of my many, many clients in my many cases has contacted me and said, ‘Oh, now we’re not going to testify. We’re afraid. Or, it’s meaningless. Or, What’s the point?’ Nobody has asked me that,” Allred said. “If anything, a lot of women are even angrier. Women are empowered in a way they’ve never been before. And I’ve always said empowerment is contagious and we are not going back.”
I asked her about that — about “going back” — to before the #MeToo, and the uncritical irony that some people associate the start of the movement with the Cosby case when, in fact, the watershed moment came in October 2017, with the explosive revelations in The New York Times about Weinstein and his decades of sexual harassment, assault, and rape of women in his orbit.
“Jami, actually, I’ve been practicing law for 46 years. That’s how long we’ve been doing the #MeToo movement. Long before there was a hashtag called #MeToo,” she said. “Long before celebrities started coming out, in 2017, and saying, yeah, #MeToo, on Weinstein. I’m glad that they did because it got a lot of attention to the issue of sexual assault, you know, issues of employment, discrimination, sexual harassment, rape, and so forth.”
But as Allred points out, even the hashtag #MeToo was really started by the activist Tarana Burke about a decade before its red carpet moment, and the work was already underway at the grassroots level with courageous victims most people have never heard of.
“The very brave women that I’ve been representing, whose names nobody knew, except for their friends, their neighbors, their families, nobody knew, but they were brave,” she said. “So let me tell you, … we are continuing with the legal reckoning. It’s always two steps forward. One step back. So women should not be discouraged. … We have to do the work for justice, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then we will achieve it.”
RACE AND THESE CASES
Which led to the question I’d most been wanting to ask her. Because I believe that African American women and white women come at these cases from different perspectives. That’s why Gloria Allred and I were on opposite sides of the Simpson trial a quarter-century ago. And that is why I asked her about the role of race in the Cosby case, which has been a complicated one for the Black community. Add to that, the tensions over “Surviving R. Kelly,” the docuseries that led to the most recent prosecution of the R&B hit-maker, after his decades-long alleged abuse of underaged girls.
Some of Kelly’s supporters, like Cosby’s before him, have suggested that racism is behind the prosecutions because he is African-American.
“I find that so offensive,” Allred said. “Because many of the women who alleged that he sexually assaulted them or victimized them were African-American women. How insulting. Don’t the lives and the bodies of African-American women matter? Is it okay to make them victims of gender violence, sexual assault, rape, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment? And just because they’re African-American women that should be ignored or discounted or discredited? It is absolutely outrageous because their lives matter. They matter.”
Gloria Allred turned 80 years old this month. “I always say, ‘Fighting injustice is very good for the health,'” she said. “So I am looking forward to continuing this fight because I am everyday inspired by the courage of women. And I intend to continue to fight injustice.”
Jami Floyd is the Senior Editor for Race and Justice at WNYC/Gothamist. If you have a tip for her, she’s on Signal and WhatsApp. Or you can message her on Twitter @jamifloyd.