On Sept. 25, comedian Bill Cosby was sentenced to three-10 years in state prison by Montgomery County (PA) Judge Steven O’Neill for the 2004 assault of Andrea Costand. The sentence, which Cosby, 81, is appealing, brought to a close a three-year battle which spanned two trials and destroyed the reputation of one of the nation’s top entertainers.
At the center of the trial were two young, formerly unknown prosecutors in the local DA’s sex crimes unit— Kristen Gibbons Feden and Stewart Ryan—whose victory propelled them into the national limelight. Both have now joined private law firms in Pennsylvania, but they recently sat down with The Crime Report for an extended interview about the key turning points in the trial, and the lessons learned for other notorious sex-crime litigations, such as the upcoming trial of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
The following transcript has been condensed for space and edited.
The Crime Report: What was it like to stare down Bill Cosby and have that interaction where he laughed?
Kirsten Gibbons Feden: It was infuriating. At that point, you had five different individuals who had recounted that they were sexually assaulted and drugged by that man. So for him to think that was funny, particularly at the point of my closing argument, when I was talking about their experience of sexual assault, I found to be extremely infuriating and disrespectful, not only to the court process, but to these survivors who took the stand as well.
TCR: What are your thoughts about the Cosby lawyers’ treatment of the victims who testified?
Stewart Ryan: One of the most interesting things about the case was the fact that we got to share the closing argument, which we had never done in Montgomery County. That’s because the defense attorneys wanted to do that. Both of them during their closing arguments had irrelevant and offensive attacks on the character of many of our witnesses, including the sexual assault survivors that testified for us. We as prosecutors have seen that over and over again. What I was most proud of is that the jury rejected all of those arguments, and relied on the evidence. They looked Andrea in the face and believed what she was saying, and gave voice to that belief by convicting him of all three counts he was facing
Gibbons Feden: Just to add, when these women were on the stand, they were subject to cross- examination that [amounted to] a high level of public dissection. They talked about what drugs they were on, their mental health issues, why they were depressed—none of which had any relevance to whether or not they were assaulted on the night in question. One of the things that is really important is that all of these women were publicly dissected by the defense attorney, but then on a national stage. The media filled the court room. So these women were not only recalling a traumatic experience, but they were subject —and it is a defendant’s constitutional right to confront the accuser, so I’m not saying that it was inappropriate—but the questions certainly were not relevant to the issue of consent.
Then they were also publicly humiliated on that large public landscape. These character assassinations are not unique, nor new to this case. But I think that what it highlights is the victims’ bravery and courage. Because they knew what could happen and what would happen, and they still were willing to face him head on and answer every question that was posed to them. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And they revealed humiliating and shameful facts about themselves, all so we could get a conviction.
Ryan: That’s an excellent point. It’s something that people in our position think about, but it was unique in this case. Whether it’s Andrea or the five women that testified in the second trial, no one wanted to do this. No one was banging down our door asking for this level of scrutiny. They did it for Andrea, they did it for their children, and they did it for other women.
TCR: What was it like to bring down such a powerful person? For example, he lashed out in the court room, he cussed, he is obviously going from such a high standing in our society to prison.
Ryan: I was relieved justice had been served. There are times when that doesn’t happen, and in a case when you believe the evidence was there, we were lucky to get our result. In terms of his reaction, I was not surprised. I think through learning about him during the investigation, you knew that was his true character, and that all he had done in that instance was take his mask off for the rest of America to see who he actually is.
Gibbons Feden: We knew from the inception, from reading one page of his deposition, we knew what to expect. So I have to be honest, though I was surprised he allowed his behavior to get the best of him publicly, I was not surprised or shocked by what I saw.
TCR: What do you think is the key ingredient that swayed the jury this time? What was different than what happened previously with the hung jury?
Gibbons Feden: I think the case rises and falls with Andrea. But I understand that Andrea was constant with the first trial and the second trial. One crucial thing is that we put the sexual assault expert [Editor’s Note: an expert who testified about the dynamics of sexual violence] before Andrea testified. We educated the jury about rape myths so that they were able to, when the heard Andrea, recount her friendship with Cosby leading up to the assault and her account thereafter. They fully understood that this type of behavior is not abnormal. And that it is consistent. It is normal. I think that was a major significant thing. We educated our jury first—as opposed to last—which I think helped them to highlight and see Andrea and her testimony.
Ryan: The one-word answer is education. We taught the jury to build a shield for all the survivors who were going to testify. So the jury could have a perspective on what the testimony was going to be before they heard it.
TCR: Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is scheduled to go on trial June 3 on five charges of rape and sexual assault involving two alleged victims. Do you think we could see a similar outcome?
Gibbons Feden: The cases are pretty different. In our case, we could only use testimony about the prior bad acts for a limited purpose. In the Weinstein case, they’re going to be able to breathe credibility into every single victim’s testimony, which will be tremendous, and help the case move along. My hope is that they educate the jury to rape myths. You have a very similar kind of offender, an offender who is in a position of authority, and sometimes it’s very difficult for the average juror to understand the victim’s behavior when he or she is assaulted by someone of that high stature.
It makes all of those rape myths and behaviors compounded: [Victims] don’t want to go to the police because he’s a public figure. One thing that is going to be very beneficial is they have multiple alleged victims they can take at face-value to get a conviction, and you couldn’t do that with our prior bad act witnesses.
Ryan: That’s really the distinction. There are charges related to multiple victims. We’ve already seen Weinstein’s attorneys come out and attack survivors, so I think there’s going to be similarities in that regard. As a prosecutor you have an obligation to believe you can convict someone before you charge them. I take heart on that. I think because they charged him they believe they can convict him. I hope they are successful. And I hope ultimately, just like the Cosby case, regardless of the outcome, a case like Weintein’s or R Kelly stands for the proposition that people should be comfortable, and have a safe space so they can talk about their traumas…
Gibbons Feden: And be treated with humanity and dignity. That’s why I like to point out Rich (Schaffer, the detective in the case). Rich treated Andrea with such dignity the first time around, that when we went that second time around, she welcomed us with open arms, even though she really didn’t want to open this horrible wound. But because she saw that familiar face who remained steadfast, compassionate, and always there for her, she felt the process was going to go smoothly.
Ryan: She believed in the process. She did not have to come down to the U.S. [from her home in Canada] but she believed because of people like Rich.
TCR: What are some of the laws surrounding rape cases that need to change in order to prosecute these cases and bring down powerful people who abuse their authority?
Gibbons Feden: One thing I think is really important is the concept of consent, particularly when it comes to people in power. I know New York is actually having an issue with this. But different people in positions of power, when they engage in sexual acts with people who are their subordinates, I think that it would be some legislative actions to penalize individuals like that.
The case I’m talking about is where a correctional officer was having sexual contact with an inmate (or someone in custody) and because there’s no legislation, or any type of legislative action, that would mandate that there was no consent (I don’t understand how consent can be given when a person is in custody), that person is not going to face charges. So I think there needs to be legislative action on the definition of consent, and particularly what it really means for people who don’t have the capacity to affirmatively consent.
Ryan: There are two things. One is specific to criminal cases, and the other is more general. In regard to criminal cases, I cringed every time I had a sexual assault trial and I listened to jury instruction on prompt complaint. And the instruction was phrased in such a way that you are supposed to evaluate whether or not there was a prompt complaint, and then hold that against the survivor, whether or not there was. It’s obscene we’re still talking that way in the legal system. Science tells us the way trauma is inflicted in these cases, you don’t have that, and we shouldn’t be judging people, or have that as something that assesses someone’s credibility.
One of the things I saw from the Cosby case, and that I see in my cases now, representing survivors in the civil justice system, is that there were a number of power people that assisted Cosby in committing these crimes, like talent agencies, people in his periphery, drivers. And in that regard, it’s important for us to understand that powerful people like this often don’t do it by themselves. They are assisted by other powerful people or powerful institutions, and it’s important to hold those institutions to account.
Unfortunately for a survivor, that doesn’t always mean justice from the criminal system. You often have to turn to the civil justice system. In New York, they just passed the Child Victims Act, which enables childhood sexual assault survivors to come forward if their civil claims have been barred by the statutes of limitation. They can now hold institutions accountable for the abuse. I know they’re doing that in New Jersey. They should do it everywhere. There’s no reason for a survivor’s voice not to be heard because it’s been “too long.” Science says there’s no such thing as too long.
Megan Hadley is a senior reporter and associate editor of The Crime Report.