RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A black SUV pulled up outside a courthouse in a suburb of Philadelphia yesterday. And one of America's most famous and influential entertainers stepped out - Bill Cosby. Cosby was there to appear before a judge on criminal charges that he drugged and sexually assaulted a woman at his Pennsylvania home back in 2004.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
His accuser, Andrea Constand, had worked at Cosby's alma mater, Temple University. And even though dozens of women have brought civil suits, this is the first time the 78-year-old comedian is facing criminal charges. Bill Cosby's attorney has called the charges unjustified and said he expects his client will be exonerated.
MONTAGNE: For some perspective on this case, we turn to NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: It was just a year and a half ago that Bill Cosby was on a new high in his long career. He was celebrating the 30th anniversary of "The Cosby Show." He was working on a new series with the network. And here he is facing a felony sexual assault charge. So, you know, you kind of got to wonder how did we get here?
DEGGANS: Well, I'd say two people were key. First, the alleged victim, Andrea Constand. She's the former staffer at Temple University who went to police a decade ago claiming Cosby assaulted her in 2004. She's the first woman to publicly accuse him of such behavior. And when prosecutors failed to file charges, she filed a civil lawsuit against him and collected 13 other women ready to testify that similar things had happened to them. That suit was settled out of court. And then Cosby's deposition in that suit was unsealed in July of this year. It contained his admission that decades ago he got drugs to have sex with women. And that renewed the criminal investigation.
Now, the other person is Montgomery County DA-elect Kevin Steele. He was just elected to the job last month. And in his campaign he ran an ad attacking his opponent who was DA back in 2005 for declining to press charges against Cosby. Steele is really fulfilling a campaign promise here by going after Cosby. And here he is announcing the charges.
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KEVIN STEELE: A prosecutor's job is to file the evidence wherever it takes us. When U.S. Federal Judge Eduardo Robreno unsealed legal filings and we learned about allegations from other victims under similar circumstances, reopening this case was not a question.
MONTAGNE: And, Eric, it's been a long while since we've had a major celebrity criminal case. There was Robert Blake about 10 years ago, O.J. Simpson a couple of decades ago. What can we expect from - if this does in fact go to trial - a celebrity trial in the age of Twitter and Instagram?
DEGGANS: Well, one thing we know is that celebrity trials are magnets for media. And both sides work really hard to manipulate it. So we've already seen hints of that here. The DA filed these charges during a slow news time - the end of the year - so he has about as much media coverage as possible. And we've had the spectacle of Cosby walking into court and into the police department for finger printing, to have his mug shot taken. And that's a controversial way of drawing attention to the arrest. Now, there probably won't be cameras in the courtroom. But the level of coverage for this case, if it goes to trial, is going to be through the roof.
MONTAGNE: And, of course, Bill Cosby is one of America's most successful black performers. He's right there at the top. Is race a factor in terms of public perception here?
DEGGANS: Well, I definitely think there are people who hesitated to condemn Cosby as these allegations started to come out because they didn't want to see an icon of black America brought down. And I've even seen people on social media saying that this prosecution is a distraction from the larger issue of police shooting black people.
But I think fans of all races face a different challenge here, which is separating their warm feelings for all these admirable Cosby characters, like Cliff Huxtable or Fat Albert, from the man who played them. Whether or not he's found guilty of these charges, it's obvious that Bill Cosby lived his life in ways very different than those characters, even as he lectured poor black people and the need for them to be virtuous and work hard to succeed.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, it's early in this particular legal process, but people have been thinking about what these charges mean for Bill Cosby's legacy for some time now. What's your thought?
DEGGANS: I think barring any kind of miraculous sweeping exoneration, Cosby's career is mostly done. And his achievements as a pioneer are always going to have an asterisk. They're always going to be tarnished. But those of us who've been covering this issue for a while, I think these charges bring hope that at least one of these allegations will finally be resolved in a court of law. With more than 50 women accusing Cosby of similar assaults, there hasn't really been a public airing with both sides presented and a verdict delivered.
MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks very much.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.