Cosby sentencing is new milestone for #MeToo movement

By Sept 23 (Reuters) - When a grainy video of standup comedian Hannibal Buress making a joke about Bill Cosby's rape allegations on an October night in 2014 went viral, the rallying cry of #MeToo was years away.

The men the movement would lay low were still at the height of their powers. That same evening, Bill O'Reilly was on his top-rated Fox News show, railing against political correctness, while the next morning, Charlie Rose told CBS This Morning's audience about an Ebola outbreak.

But the Buress clip was the first rumble of an avalanche bearing down on Cosby, prompting dozens of women to come forward with their own stories of abuse by the entertainer, eventually leading to his arrest and subsequent conviction.

When the comedian, once known as "America's Dad," is sentenced to what could be up to 10 years in prison this week for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004, it will be perhaps the starkest evidence yet that the #MeToo movement has permanently altered the way the country reckons with sexual misconduct by powerful men.

"I'm hoping that's a permanent change – that there isn't the idea that you get to a point of success that you can do whatever you want," said Aviva Orenstein, a law professor at Indiana University who has studied sexual assault cases. "Jokes about casting couches – I mean, that was tolerated for years. Sexual favors are expected, and genius is recognized as an exception to decency."

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NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Actor/ stand-up comedian Bill Cosby leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse for the third day of his retrial for sexual assault charges on April 11, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 12: Bill Cosby accuser model Janice Dickinson, 63, walks through the Montgomery County Courthouse after lunch to testify on the fourth day of the sexual assault retrial on April 12, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 12: Bill Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse for the fourth day of his sexual assault retrial on April 12, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Actor/ stand-up comedian Bill Cosby arriving to Montgomery County Courthouse for the third day of his retrial for sexual assault charges on April 11, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Chelan Lasha weeps as she returns to the courtroom after recess during the third day in the sexual assault case against actor and comedian Bill Cosby at the Montgomery County Courthouse April 11, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The comedian is accused by a former Temple University employee of allegedly drugging and molesting her in 2004 at his home in suburban Philadelphia. (Photo by Dominick Reuter-Pool/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 12: Bill Cosby accuser model Janice Dickinson, 63, walks through the Montgomery County Courthouse after lunch to testify on the fourth day of the sexual assault retrial on April 12, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Actor and comedian, Bill Cosby, returns to the courtroom after lunch recess during the third day of the retrial of his sexual assault case at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 11, 2018. Dominick Reuter/Pool via Reuters
Attorney Gloria Allred arrives for the third day of actor and comedian, Bill Cosby's sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 11, 2018. Dominick Reuter/Pool via Reuters
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby departs after the first day of his sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jessica Kourkounis
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby departs after the first day of his sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jessica Kourkounis
Files for the prosecution?s case against actor and comedian Bill Cosby are wheeled into the courtroom for the second day of Cosby's sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 10, 2018. David Maialetti/Pool via Reuters?
Boxes of documents are wheeled into the courtroom on the third day of the retrial of actor and comedian Bill Cosby's sexual assault case at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 11, 2018. Dominick Reuter/Pool via Reuters
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom is seen around the Montgomery County Courthouse during the third day of Bill Cosby's sexual assault charges on April 11, 2018 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 80-year-old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Bill Cosby's personal attorney Tom L. Larkin and actor/ stand-up comedian Bill Cosby leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse for the third day of his retrial for sexual assault charges on April 11, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Actor/ stand-up comedian Bill Cosby leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse for the third day of his retrial for sexual assault charges on April 11, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Actor/ stand-up comedian Bill Cosby leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse for the third day of his retrial for sexual assault charges on April 11, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 11: Actor/ stand-up comedian Bill Cosby arriving to Montgomery County Courthouse for the third day of his retrial for sexual assault charges on April 11, 2018 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
District Attorney Kevin Steele, with Andrea Constand and prosecutors on his side gives emotional remarks after the guilty verdict of Bill Cosby on all three counts in he sexual assault trial of the comedian an actor, during a press conference, at the Montgomery County District Attorneys office in Norristown, PA, USA, on April 26, 2018. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Gloria Allred, victims and supporters react after the guilty verdict of Bill Cosby, outside the court house, in Norristown, PA, on April 26, 2018. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 26: Bill Cosby accusers Victoria Valentino (R), Caroline Heldman (L) and Lili Bernard (2L) react after the guilty on all counts verdict was delivered in the sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse on April 26, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Cosby was found guilty on all accounts after 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 26: A woman reacts outside the courtroom upon hearing that Bill Cosby was found guilty on all counts in his sexual assault retrial on April 26, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Cosby was found guilty on all accounts after 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Andrea Constand and prosecutors on here side reacts the guilty verdict of Bill Cosby on all three counts in he sexual assault trial of the comedian an actor, during a press conference, at the Montgomery County District Attorneys office in Norristown, PA, USA, on April 26, 2018. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 26: Bill Cosby accusers (L-R) Caroline Heldman and Lili Bernard react after the guilty on all counts verdict was delivered in the sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse on April 26, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Cosby was found guilty on all accounts after 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
NORRISTOWN, PA - APRIL 26: Bill Cosby accusers (L-R) Caroline Heldman, Lili Bernard and Victoria Valentino (far right) react after the guilty on all counts verdict was delivered in the sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse on April 26, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Cosby was found guilty on all accounts after 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 80 year old entertainer of sexual assault. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Bill Cosby departs on bail after being found guilty on all three accounts of sexual assault, at Montgomery County Court House, in Norristown, PA, USA, on April 26, 2018. After the first trial last year resulted in a hung jury actor and entertainer Bill Cosby is found guilty on three counts of sexual assault. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Cosby, once the beloved star of the 1980s television comedy "The Cosby Show," eventually faced accusations from some 60 women stretching back decades, some of which had long been known but previously failed to gain traction.

His arrest in late 2015 predated the #MeToo movement, which gained steam following multiple allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, by nearly two years. But Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and an expert on sexual assault cases, said Cosby's case, as well as the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, helped "seed the ground" for the coming wave.

"I do think you can draw a line between the Cosby case and where we are now," she said.

The movement itself may have helped convict Cosby, after his first trial in mid-2017 for sexually assaulting a former friend, Andrea Constand, ended with a hung jury. By the time he faced his retrial, the #MeToo campaign had exploded.

Defense lawyers grilled prospective jurors before the trial on whether they could set aside their feelings about #MeToo. The judge who oversaw both trials, Steven O'Neill, allowed prosecutors to call five additional accusers to tell their stories at the second proceeding, bolstering Constand's account.

"[The movement] may have influenced the judge's willingness to allow more witnesses," Orenstein said.

In closing arguments, prosecutors specifically called out Cosby's lawyers for targeting the women's credibility, saying those attacks discourage victims from speaking up.

Experts said the #MeToo movement's work is far from over. In Cosby's case, he was only convicted after a jury heard from several women, rather than only one, underscoring the challenges sole accusers can face. That dynamic is on display in the controversy surrounding U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Tuerkheimer said, with Kavanaugh and his allies denying allegations from a woman that he sexually assaulted her in high school.

But Cosby's conviction has given hope to many survivors, particularly those whose abuse occurred too long ago to pursue criminal charges, according to Rebecca O'Connor, vice president of public policy at RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). The nonprofit’s hotline has received a record number of calls in the last year, with many survivors citing the Cosby case and others as inspiration.

"I think for a lot of survivors, they can see themselves in this story," she said. "People are watching carefully." (Reporting by Joseph Ax Editing by Tom Brown)

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