All eyes on Cosby accuser as sexual assault trial begins

NEW YORK, June 4 (Reuters) - While dozens of women have leveled sexual assault allegations at comedian Bill Cosby, destroying his reputation as "America's dad," the question of whether he will be imprisoned will hang on the words of one woman when his trial starts this week.

The outcome, taken together with the treatment of accuser Andrea Constand on the witness stand, may well affect whether women who have been sexually assaulted by powerful men seek prosecution, according to experts who study sex crimes.

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Bill Cosby's sex assault case
ELKINS PARK, PA - DECEMBER 30: Comedian Bill Cosby is seen leaving on December 30, 2015 at the District Court in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Cosby has been charged for aggravated indecent assault for a 2004 incident involving Temple University employee Andrea Constand. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage)
Former Mrs America Lisa Christie, who alleges misconduct by Bill Cosby, holds up photos of her younger self during a news conference at the law office of attorney Gloria Allred in Los Angeles, September 30, 2015. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby arrives for a Habeas Corpus hearing on sexual assault charges at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, July 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Makela TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Comedian Bill Cosby touches the metal detector after bumping into it as he arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse for a preliminary hearing related to assault charges, May 24, 2016, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S.. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter/POOL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ELKINS PARK, PA - DECEMBER 30: (EDITORS NOTE: Best quality available) In this handout image provided by the Elkins Park, Montgomery County District Attorney's office, William H. Cosby poses for a mugshot photo during his arraignment December 30, 2015 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Cosby was arraigned at 2:30 p.m. before Magisterial District Judge Elizabeth McHugh and charged with Aggravated Indecent Assault. Bail was set at $1 million under the condition that he surrender his passport and have no contact with the victim. Cosby was released.after posting $100,000, the required 10 percent of bail. (Photo by Montgomery County District Attorney's Office via Getty Images)
A woman holding a sign that reads "Rape is No Joke" protests as people walk into the Centre In The Square venue where Bill Cosby is performing in Kitchener, January 7, 2015. Bill Cosby, the subject of more than a dozen sex abuse allegations over the past three months, will go ahead with three Canadian shows this week, coming as more women levelled accusations against the comedian. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: CRIME LAW ENTERTAINMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Attorney Gloria Allred (L) speaks accompanied by Actress Lili Bernard (R) announcing allegations against comedian Bill Cosby in New York, May 1, 2015. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ELKINS PARK, PA - DECEMBER 30: Bill Cosby's home is seen after his arraignment at Montgomery County District Court on sexual assault charges December 30, 2015 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Cosby was arraigned at 2:30 p.m. before Magisterial District Judge Elizabeth McHugh charged with Aggravated Indecent Assault. Bail was set at $1 million under the condition that he surrender his passport and have no contact with the victim. Cosby was released after posting the required 10 percent of the bail, $100,000. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby waves to cheering fans while departing a hearing on sexual assault charges at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Makela TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Linda Kirkpatrick, one of three women who allege they were sexually assaulted by comedian Bill Cosby, listens to a question after speaking at a news conference in Los Angeles, California, January 7, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
ELKINS PARK, PA - DECEMBER 30: Bill Cosby is led from the Cheltenham Police Station after his arraignment at Montgomery County District Court on sexual assault charges December 30, 2015 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Cosby was arraigned at 2:30 p.m. before Magisterial District Judge Elizabeth McHugh charged with Aggravated Indecent Assault. Bail was set at $1 million under the condition that he surrender his passport and have no contact with the victim. Cosby was released after posting the required 10 percent of the bail, $100,000. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
ELKINS PARK, PA - DECEMBER 30: Bill Cosby's home is seen after his arraignment at Montgomery County District Court on sexual assault charges December 30, 2015 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Cosby was arraigned at 2:30 p.m. before Magisterial District Judge Elizabeth McHugh charged with Aggravated Indecent Assault. Bail was set at $1 million under the condition that he surrender his passport and have no contact with the victim. Cosby was released after posting the required 10 percent of the bail, $100,000. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
Bill Cosby leaves his arraignment at Montgomery County District Court in Cheltenham, Pa., on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, after county prosecutors filed sex assault charges against him. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS via Getty Images)
ELKINS PARK, PA - DECEMBER 30: Comedian Bill Cosby (C) arrives on December 30, 2015 at the District Court in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Cosby has been charged for aggravated indecent assault for a 2004 incident involving Temple University employee Andrea Constand. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage)
US comedian Bill Cosby arrives December 30, 2015 to the Court House in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania to face charges of aggravated indecent assault. Cosby was arraigned over an incident that took place in 2004 -- the first criminal charge filed against the actor after dozens of women claimed abuse.AFP PHOTO/KENA BETANCUR / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
US comedian Bill Cosby December 30, 2015 at the Court House in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania to face arraignment on charges of aggravated indecent assault. Cosby was arraigned over an incident that took place in 2004 -- the first criminal charge filed against the actor after dozens of women claimed abuse.AFP PHOTO/KENA BETANCUR / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele speaks during a press conference announcing the indictment of Bill Cosby for alleged sexual assault on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. At left is Cheltenham Township police Chief John Norris, and at right is Samuel J. Gallen, chief of Montgomery County Detectives. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, DECEMBER 30: Attorney Gloria Allred speaks during a press conference in response to the felony sexual assault charges levied against comedian Bill Cosby stemming from an alleged January 2004 assault of Temple University employee Andrea Constand at Cosby's Pennsylvania home December 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Allred represents 29 alleged sexual assault victims of Bill Cosby. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
ELKINS PARK, PA - DECEMBER 30: Bill Cosby's home is seen after his arraignment at Montgomery County District Court on sexual assault charges December 30, 2015 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Cosby was arraigned at 2:30 p.m. before Magisterial District Judge Elizabeth McHugh charged with Aggravated Indecent Assault. Bail was set at $1 million under the condition that he surrender his passport and have no contact with the victim. Cosby was released after posting the required 10 percent of the bail, $100,000. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby departs the Montgomery County Courthouse after a pre-trial hearing on sexual assault charges in Norristown, Pennsylvania May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Makela TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Attorney Gloria Allred holds a copy of a criminal complaint by Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, during a news conference in Los Angeles, California to comment on the aggravated indecent assault charges filed against comedian Bill Cosby by the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania District Attorney December 30, 2015. Cosby has been charged with felony sexual assault over an incident in 2004 at his Philadelphia-area mansion, a Pennsylvania prosecutor said on Wednesday, in the first criminal case involving the comedian after years of mounting accusations. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby is helped through the metal detector as he arrives for the first day of his sexual assault trial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S. June 5, 2017. REUTERS/David Maialetti/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Bill Cosby is helped by an aide as he returns into Courtroom A in the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Michael Bryant/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NORRISTOWN, PA - JUNE 5: Bill Cosby arrives with actress Keshia Knight Pulliam (R) at the Montgomery County Courthouse before the opening of the sexual assault trial June 5, 2017 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. A former Temple University employee alleges that the entertainer drugged and molested her in 2004 at his home in suburban Philadelphia. More than 40 women have accused the 79 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - JUNE 5: Brian McMonagle, an attorney for Bill Cosby, arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse before the opening of the sexual assault trial June 5, 2017 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. A former Temple University employee alleges that the entertainer drugged and molested her in 2004 at his home in suburban Philadelphia. More than 40 women have accused the 79 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 23: Bill Cosby is escorted to the Allegheny County Courthouse before the second day of jury selection in his sexual assault case on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Andrew Rush - Pool/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - JUNE 5: Attorney Gloria Allred arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse before the opening of the sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby June 5, 2017 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. A former Temple University employee alleges that the entertainer drugged and molested her in 2004 at his home in suburban Philadelphia. More than 40 women have accused the 79 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
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"If he is acquitted, I think people will kind of shrink back, especially if the victim is treated really badly," said Aviva Orenstein, a law professor at Indiana University, who has studied sex crimes.

But Jennifer Long, a former Pennsylvania prosecutor whose non-profit AEquitas advises prosecutors on sexual violence, said she is optimistic that the sight of Constand testifying against a major celebrity could inspire more women to come forward.

Constand, a former basketball player and coach at his alma mater Temple University, has accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her 13 years ago at his home in suburban Philadelphia.

Cosby, 79, has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing in response to the accusations covering a series of alleged sexual assaults dating back to the 1960s, most of which are too old to be the subject of criminal prosecution.

The former star of the 1980s television hit "The Cosby Show" does not plan to testify during the two-week trial in Norristown, Pennsylvania, leaving Constand as the linchpin of the prosecution's case - and the main target for Cosby's attorneys during what promises to be tough cross-examination.

Cosby's lawyers have signaled they will grill Constand on why she waited nearly a year before reporting the alleged assault and why she remained in touch with Cosby for months after their encounter, even taking her mother to see one of his performances.

UNPREDICTABLE REACTIONS TO TRAUMA

Experts in sexual assault say victims often behave in inconsistent ways for a variety of reasons. For instance, it is not uncommon for victims to remain in contact with their attackers, perhaps to regain a sense of control or normalcy or to try to understand what happened, Long said.

"Although people would like to think that there's one way that victims of a crime react, we know that how victims react to a trauma is varied," she said.

Last week, Judge Steven O'Neill overruled defense objections and said prosecutors could call a psychologist to testify about how Constand's behavior is not out of place for a victim of sexual violence. Such experts were not permitted until 2012 in Pennsylvania, which was the last U.S. state to allow such testimony.

Constand's testimony will be buttressed by that of another accuser, who says Cosby drugged and assaulted her in a strikingly similar attack in 1996.

That woman, known only as Kacey, could help sway jurors who harbor doubts about Constand's story, legal experts said. Studies show that jurors who learn of prior incidents are far more likely to convict a defendant, according to Orenstein, who has researched the use of so-called prior bad acts witnesses in sexual assault cases.

"There's a general consensus that knowledge of priors totally jacks up the conviction rate," she said.

The judge is allowing Kacey to testify only to show a pattern of behavior by Cosby or to undercut any defense claims that he may not have understood Constand was unable to consent; jurors are not allowed to consider what Kacey's story says about Cosby's character.

But that legal distinction can be a difficult one for jurors to follow, said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has followed the case.

"What you have is the jury drifting from its real job," he said. "The case in court today is: Did Bill Cosby assault Andrea Constand? The jury could say, 'Well, I'm not sure about that, but he's kind of a bad guy.'" (Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Scott Malone, G Crosse)

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