When Bill Cosby was released from prison on Wednesday, a former federal prosecutor told The Daily Beast that “everyone’s mind is blown right now.” Which isn’t quite accurate. Us survivors and victims of sexual assault, our minds are fully intact. This news isn’t shocking to us because the criminal legal system was never built for us. It was made to break us.
In 2017, during the resurgence of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo, many thought the moment would lead to real material change, and in some ways it has. New York, Delaware, and other states now require mandatory sexual harassment training for almost all companies. Congress reformed some of its processes for staffers who choose to report sexual harassment.
However, in other ways, #MeToo hasn’t changed much. Jeffrey Toobin is back at CNN after exposing his penis on a work call, Brett Kavanaugh is seated on the Supreme Court for a lifetime, and Donald Trump served as president for an entire term.
#MeToo opened and held space for conversation, for folks to share their stories and to feel seen and heard. In the almost four years since the internet exploded with millions of stories of sexual assault, harassment, and harm, the majority of change has happened outside the legal system. It’s happened with our best friends, with our parents, with our bosses at work, and with our romantic partners when we remind them that consent is fluid and must be given often and enthusiastically.
Substantial, meaningful change inside the legal system has not happened. We’re still seeing cops asking victims to come forward, to report the heinous crimes committed against us, and make the difficult decision to report. That may include anything from having a rape kit done to filling out a police report to being a plaintiff in a lawsuit. However, reporting can often lead to our entire lives being excavated for public consumption and a decades-long battle. As a plaintiff in two lawsuits, and a federal criminal investigation I know this experience well. A system supposedly set up for “justice” is in fact one that has continually failed us.
Over 50 individuals came forward and reported crimes against Cosby. They provided detailed stories and accusations, their stories aligned and they’d never met or previously spoken and many spoke on the record. It was Andrea Constand who moved forward with a criminal charge in 2005, to once again be revisited 10 years later, and Cosby would be found guilty in 2018. That’s 13 years—an eternity as a victim in the legal system. Andrea Constand has lived 100 lives, all of them arduous, and yet nothing about her life is normal.
But for all her work, it wasn’t enough to keep Cosby behind bars. But it’s never enough. It’s never enough because victims are never believed, we’re never credible enough. Credibility isn’t tangible, you can’t hold it in your hands, you can’t look at it, people can rarely describe it. But when you’re a victim-survivor of rape it’s what the world requires of you. It’s an impossible mountain victims and survivors are forced to climb and once we reach the top we’re told, “You did great, but you have to keep climbing, grow your hair, cover your tattoos and learn to talk less with your hands.” Credibility doesn’t matter in a system where perpetrators like Cosby are able to afford the best lawyers who can locate a prosecutorial loophole and free their clients.
Cosby was released because of a “process violation.” Due to an earlier agreement between Bruce Castor, a previous Montgomery County, PA District Attorney, which stated Cosby was never to be charged in the case. “Mr. Cosby was not getting prosecuted at all—ever—as far as I was concerned,” Castor said. “My belief was that I had the power to make such a statement.” Castor never intended to prosecute this case, he never intended to seek any sort of justice for Andrea Constand. So to call what happened Wednesday a miscarriage of justice or a “mistake” would be incorrect because it is what Bruce Castor intended all along. The criminal legal system is too big to fail, and in the vast majority of cases, the only individuals harmed by this system are the victims and survivors who give up years of their life for some semblance of closure.
It was a conscious decision made by Constand when she chose to move forward with the criminal case, perhaps she felt it was a pathway toward justice, toward healing, or both. In April 2018 when Cosby was found guilty on all three charges, and later in September of 2018 was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison, I cannot imagine what Andrea Constand was feeling. A sense of relief? Justice had been served? This chapter of her life was over? She put everything she had toward that case, toward the trial, and then it ended, or so she thought. On Wednesday, it must have felt like the wind was knocked out or that she’d misread the headline a million times.
On Wednesday, I heard a lot of “Well this is going to make a lot of people lose faith in the system.” It’s shocking to me that those people ever had faith. When you’re a survivor of rape there is no map to healing, it’s not a linear process. The criminal legal system only makes it worse. “Does this sweater make me look more credible?” is a real question I’ve asked my best friend before a meeting with federal prosecutors. On Wednesday I was in a group text where it felt like people in my life were learning for the first time how broken the system was, the Cosby case was teaching them something. I’m grateful for that, and maybe that’s happening for you too, but please remember that while you’re learning that lesson someone’s life is once again being ruined. Millions of survivors and victims are being triggered and retraumatized, myself included.