February 26th, 2024


Torching due process: From Bill Cosby to Ferguson

Kathleen Parker

By Kathleen Parker

Published Nov. 26, 2014

By now, most Americans probably have formed an opinion about what comedian Bill Cosby did or didn't do sexually to or with at least 16 women beginning in the 1960s.

According to several women who have accused him of sexual predations, Cosby's usual modus operandi was to drug women who were with him voluntarily and then force sexual acts upon them.

We know these things based mostly on interviews with the women. Five revealed their identities and talked openly in The Washington Post's exhaustive story of the history and allegations.

Even so, these are accusations, rather than confirmable facts as required in a true court of law. Otherwise, there's no real evidence — no tapes or letters. No rape kits or photographs. One woman once did file charges against Cosby, but that case was settled. Whatever consolation this might have brought to the alleged victim, a settled case doesn't confirm guilt. Sometimes, especially when public figures are involved, cases are settled just to end a nuisance.

In other words, we have formed our opinions based on no established facts or evidence and only on the memories of the women, most of whom say they were drugged at the time. Some of them have conceded that their recollections are foggy — which, of course they would be, after decades and under pharmaceutically induced circumstances, allegedly.

Use of the word "allegedly" intends no disrespect but is a requirement for journalists as opposed to people who chat online. Any charge is alleged until proven or determined true beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of one's peers. This is how it's supposed to work, though it surely hasn't in Cosby's case — and probably won't, because of the statute of limitations.

This column is not a defense of Cosby but a reminder of our rule of law. We see in Ferguson, Mo., what happens when respect for our legal process is lost: Arsonists and looters expressed their outrage that a grand jury didn't act as they thought it should. Yet we hear people trying to defend these actions as somehow acceptable, or at least non-criminal, because of historical injustice.

Nonsense. Ferguson is what you get when mob rule overwhelms the rule of law, which was created as the defense of civilized people against the mob.

Not to conflate the two, the facts and circumstances are vastly different, but Cosby's online torching is nonetheless of similar gravity. He may as well walk out of town and tie himself to an anthill.

Did he do the things alleged? With so many women speaking out, it seems likely that he did. His pattern of behavior toward women — as related by others, not just his accusers — was not that of the guy we thought we knew. Indeed, we struggle to reconcile the disparity between the persona of Dr. Cliff Huxtable and the allegations against Cosby.

Nevertheless, what you or I think in the absence of a trial to present and defend against charges with evidence and testimony under oath is irrelevant. It is at least a mockery of justice that bodes not so well for a present-future when lives are destroyed on the basis of, dare I say, gossip.

Anyone can say anything about another on social media — even charge rape — and it's extremely hard to recover from the effects. It isn't just Cosby's hide here; it's everyone's.

Many have lauded the power of social media in liberating people from the bonds of shamed silence. This technological development makes it possible for people who have felt too timid, afraid or disenfranchised to step forward. While this is certainly true and valuable to an extent, social media have enormous destructive power.

This intersection of freedom and responsibility has rarely been so vivid and presents new challenges to the personal moral code that undergirds our legal system.

For his part, Cosby has denied some claims and declined to comment on others, fueling skepticism about his innocence. He and his lawyers know that, absent evidence, there's no profit in dignifying the charges. Hope hinges on the public's short attention span and bigger fires to put out.

Buried deep in our craws, meanwhile, lurking like a slimy Gollum, bug-eyed and deformed by envy and self-loathing, lies a second thought or three: Someday it could be thee or me.

Whatever the truth about Cosby, due process has been the victim of what Clarence Thomas once called a high-tech lynching.

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Kathleen Parker won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Now one of America's most popular opinion columnists, she's appeared in JWR since 1999.