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Celebrity Justice: How Women Saw Their Own Experiences in the Cosby and Spears Cases

by Lisa Tozzi July 3, 2021

This story originally appeared in The Fuller Project’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

Two high-profile celebrity court cases over the past week seemed to capture the frustration many women experience as they seek justice in the U.S. legal system. 

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania’s highest court threw out Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and released him prison due to a legal technicality. It was a gut-punch of a decision to Cosby’s accusers and also met with outcry from women and organizations around the country (Phylicia Rashad notwithstanding) who worried this would have a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

“Today’s news is a setback in the fight for justice for sexual assault survivors. When the system disregards dozens of accusers in a situation like this—because of a technical loophole, not because of the proof that led to sentencing—it creates the perception that it’s ‘not worth it’ for victims to come forward,” the organization Women in Film Los Angeles said in a statement. 

The court did not rule on Cosby’s guilt or innocence. Its decision boils down to the majority of justices ruling that Cosby’s agreement with a previous prosecutor should have prevented his successor from ever filing charges against him.  

In 2018 Cosby was found guilty of drugging and raping Andrea Constand, a Temple University employee, and he was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison and required to register as a sex offender. At the time, the verdict was heralded as a watershed moment in the #MeToo movement, a sign that juries might hold high-profile defendants into account. (A 2017 trial on the charges ended in a mistrial after a jury failed to reach an unanimous decision.)

More than 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault over the years. In a memorable 2015 New York magazine cover story, 35 of these survivors told their stories of being sexually harassed, drugged, and attacked by the former comedian and actor over the years. 

Several hours after the stunning Cosby decision, news broke that a Los Angeles judge denied Britney Spears’s request to remove her father, Jamie Spears, from her conservatorship. It is important to note that Wednesday’s decision regarding her father was not in direct response to the singer’s emotional testimony from last week. Her court-ordered attorney had filed the petition in November seeking the elder Spears’ removal from the conservatorship, Variety reported.

Britney Spears attends Sony Pictures’ “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” Los Angeles Premiere on July 22, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

The singer had appeared in court last week and gave an emotional speech in which she said she wanted the judge to end her conservatorship—the legal arrangement that has governed her personal and financial affairs for the past 13 years and has galvanized the #FreeBritney movement. Spears says that under the setup she has been subject to abuse, been forced to work, and prevented from getting married or from making an appointment with a doctor to remove her IUD.  

Spears’ testimony grabbed headlines around the world and set off a spirited discussion about mental health, trauma, and the rights of women to have agency over their own lives and bodies. For many civil rights and reproductive rights advocates, it evoked the history of forced sterilizations in the United States. 

Spears’s testimony did seem to have an impact on the wealth management firm appointed to co-manage the singer’s finances, which said in a court filing on Thursday it would like to resign.

The next hearing in her case is scheduled for July 14. (For more on what could happen in this case, read this interview with conservatorship attorney Tamar Arminak.)

As for the Cosby case, many of the statutes of limitations for bringing charges against Cosby for the dozens of other alleged incidents have expired, making it unlikely that he will face additional prosecutions. And the women who had felt relief when he was convicted are having to reconcile with grief instead. 

“I’m feeling sad because this is absolutely a perceived loss on my part,” Patricia Steuer, who accused Cosby of drugging and assaulting her in 1978 and 1980, told The New York Times. “I’m wondering what the 43-year ordeal that I went through was supposed to be about.”

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