When Bill Cosby‘s first sexual assault trial ended in a mistrial last June, it was a different era in America: A time before allegations of sexual assault, unwanted advancement and harassment would surface against dozens of other well-known men in positions of power in what became known as the #MeToo movement.
On Thursday afternoon, after Cosby was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004, legal experts said the verdict was a victory for the #MeToo movement — and a legal game-changer.
“For decades, this intolerable, unacceptable behavior was the subject of whispering and now, we’re shouting, and the shouting is being heard,” says Daniel Medwed, a professor at Northeastern’s School of Law. “In many of these cases, the rules and the cultural norms historically were stacked against victims, and now, maybe the balance is shifting, making it a more even playing field.”
Medwed says he considers Thursday’s verdict “a tremendous validation of a narrative that, in the past, has often been discredited by juries — the narrative of acquaintance rape involving powerful men…. The #MeToo movement has created an environment where people are just more aware of the prevalence of acquaintance rape, sexual harassment, and manipulation by powerful men.”
Medwed adds the #MeToo movement created a context in which “a jury would feel more comfortable convicting someone for this.”
The movement may also have had some impact on the judge in the case, say experts.
During Cosby’s first trial, only two of his accusers — Constand and another woman — were allowed to testify for the prosecution. This time, five accusers took the witness stand.
(Cosby has been accused of drugging and/or sexually assaulting more than 60 women. He has denied all allegations.)
“Those five witnesses made the case against Cosby stronger, and made it easier for a jury to see a pattern of behavior,” explains Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern University law professor and former prosecutor. “There was plenty of evidence for the jury to convict, but that was obviously the case first time around. I think what is hopeful about this verdict is it does suggest that people in general, and jurors in particular, are starting to more fairly judge the credibility of women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault.”
Tuerkheimer adds: “There has been a skepticism so deeply ingrained in our society that women have not gotten a fair hearing. We may be making progress in that regard. This a verdict that is very consistent with the work that the movement is doing to de-bias credibility determination.”
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Cosby faces a maximum of 30 years behind bars when he’s sentenced. A sentencing date has not been set, but must be scheduled within the next three months.
His lawyer has said Cosby plans to appeal his conviction.
A ‘Watershed Moment?’
California family law attorney Debra Opri says the Cosby verdict marks “a watershed moment in the #MeToo movement. This is the first — first — high-powered, influential icon worldwide who will be forever the poster board of what the #MeToo movement represents.”
Opri tells PEOPLE: “The world heard yesterday that, if you have the evidence, we are listening and we will not be afraid — we will not hesitate to call that person out, whoever he or she may be. It’s over. The blindfold has come off, and the five senses of humanity are now perfected: People will see, hear, speak, and sense the truth, and I am proud of this moment in time. Things will no longer ever go back to the way they were because of this Bill Cosby verdict.”
While Lynn Hecht Schafran, an expert in gender issues affecting courts and the senior vice president of Legal Momentum’s Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, says she’s “very pleased” with the jury’s decision, she isn’t as optimistic about a legal sea change.
“What concerns me is that we’ve not set another barrier that victims of these kinds of crimes may have to leap over,” Hecht Schafran tells PEOPLE. “How will people react to situations where there was only one victim, as there was in the prior trial?”