Women, DA refuse to give up after Cosby mistrial

District Attorney Kevin Steele speaks about the Cosby case after the mistrial was declared Saturday.

For the last two weeks, throughout the testimony and jury deliberations, I attended the sexual-assault trial of Bill Cosby in Norristown. I have been counseling survivors of trauma, abuse, and sexual assault for 20 years. I am also a childhood abuse survivor.

I had connected with several of Cosby’s accusers after publishing an op-ed in February of 2015. For months leading up to the trial I had conversations with some of the women and I had occasionally exchanged words of support with Andrea Constand, whose accusation that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her at his home in 2004 led to the trial, and Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele.

For years colleagues and friends have told me that trying to win a legal battle after being sexually assaulted is almost impossible. At one point I worked with a patient who reported being choked and raped, and she had physical evidence of the attack. But the case did not even make it to trial. In fact, the accused countersued her for defamation and she was told by the local district attorney, “Why would anyone believe you? You stayed in a relationship with this man after he allegedly assaulted you on many occasions.”

With that background I found it very difficult to maintain decorum as I listened to the pretrial deposition and the way Cosby responded to some of the questions. He admitted giving Constand drugs and having sexual contact with her. He even suggested that Constand had an orgasm when talking to her mother. What most people do not understand is the guilt and sense of responsibility survivors feel when their bodies respond positively to assault. So many victims will think things like, “Maybe I asked for it,” or “My body acted like I wanted it.” We do not have control over the way our body responds in any kind of traumatic situation.

By the end of week two my heart was breaking for Constand and all of the women who have come forward. But I also found myself feeling empowered and hopeful. Every day different media outlets were talking to some of the women, as well as to myself and other assault advocates. The attention on this case put sexual assault in the spotlight. On my Facebook page so many women were writing on how these stories gave them the strength to speak out about their abuse or assault.

The moment that had the most impact for me was when I had the opportunity for the first time to give Constand a hug. She was walking down a very secure hallway through the courthouse. I remember thinking that she appeared strong, tough, and persistent. The impact of this kind of trauma leaves many without a voice. For years after I was abused I felt like I could not say no to anyone. I was afraid of people getting angry at me. I didn’t know how to protect myself from people who did not have my best interest at heart.

When the news broke over the weekend of a mistrial in the Cosby case, I felt my heart sink. But then there was a shift. As I was giving an interview to a local media outlet, I found myself feeling hopeful as we spoke about Steele’s announcement that he will see this through until the end. Once I heard that Constand was OK with moving forward I thought, “In many ways you have already won.”

Living through any kind of trauma can ruin lives. But throughout this legal process, Constand has been fighting for her right to be heard and to have a fair trial and a verdict. And Steele continues to tell the world that we need to hold people accountable for these types of crimes.

Being a high-profile person does not give anyone the right to hurt someone else and then be let off the hook. I plan to attend the next trial and I will continue to support my patients or anyone on the journey toward recovering after surviving.

Shari Botwin is a clinician, author, and speaker in Cherry Hill. sharilcsw@comcast.net