Here's Mark Weaver's latest op-ed column, this one published in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Topic: the Bill Cosby trial and Cosby's false defense of racism. Click here or read below:
Cosby trial may worsen racial divide
By Mark R. Weaver
While I happily practice law here in Ohio, this week my mind goes back to my days as a young attorney in suburban Philadelphia. In the Pennsylvania county and courthouse where I first practiced law, Bill Cosby is now on trial for what could essentially be a life sentence following charges of sexual assault.
The man once known as “America’s Dad” is accused of being America’s rapist. These are ugly allegations and the details and legal rhetoric may get uglier.
I’ve prosecuted cases here in southwest Ohio, including many charges of sexual assault. No matter what the outcome, everyone emerges from these matters somewhat worse for wear. Victims, who must publicly recount painful details, end up stressed and distressed. Defendants – even those who emerge acquitted – often find their lives and personal relationships overturned like a five-car pileup.
Cosby is, of course, presumed innocent in the court of law. We must respect that.
Just as certainly, however, Cosby has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. This court differs drastically from the one we find beyond the marble columns at the local courthouse. Unlike a court of law, the court of public opinion has no rules concerning what evidence is admissible.
In court, hearsay is typically forbidden. In the press, it’s ubiquitous.
At trial, accusers are subject to rigorous cross-examination. In the news cycle, allegations are often presumed true, simply because the victim states them with such emotional emphasis.
Anonymous testimony is forbidden in our justice system. In news stories, journalists claim a certain cache and credibility by featuring “well placed” anonymous sources.
If a lawyer tells a jury something out of line, the judge can respond by telling jurors to ignore it or finding the lawyer in contempt. Appearing live on TV, lawyers are largely free to make claims unchallenged and the legal ramifications are less restrictive.
And while there’s only one judge in the court of law, there are millions of judges in the court of public opinion.
These are the hallmarks of the American justice system and public opinion in 2017, but – as unappetizing as this daily fare may be – I fear we will see something much more pernicious in the Cosby case.
In a national radio interview, Cosby publicly blamed racism for his own questionable behavior. Even if he didn’t violate laws, the actions he’s acknowledged are enough for polite society to rebuff him. No racist urged him into intimate moments with women not his wife, and no bigot procured the drugs that quickly reduce a woman to an unconscious target of rape.
When I worked in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, I saw unsettling instances of racism in America. We must all stipulate that, when prejudice arises, people of good will and those who strive for the moral law must confront and condemn it. But just as disquieting are those who cry racism with the carelessness of the boy who cried wolf. Call it diversion by defamation. This slander is its own unique brand of hate.
If Cosby tries to blame his situation on race, it will be despicable. History’s account of racism in America is rife with the vilest of deeds. Indeed, racism still exists at an attenuated level. But those matters are separate from the issues in the Cosby case.
We saw a corollary to this just last week. Self-described “D-list” celebrity Kathy Griffin inexcusably mocked the president with an ISIS-style beheading simulation. Her actions were well beyond even the off-ramps of the acceptable traffic lanes of American political discourse. Yet, when called to account, rather than accept responsibility, she claimed sexism by those who were disgusted by a display that would insult second-year students to describe as sophomoric.
People who break the law or shock the conscience of society are fully responsible for what they do. Deflecting blame by pushing society’s hottest of hot buttons is wrong. The use of sexism or racism as an all-purpose defense or shield from shame by the malevolent must stop.
In the 1980s, Cosby helped us have constructive discussions about race. Dr. Cliff Huxtable, sporting a goofy sweater, encouraged us to understand the nuances of race at a time when many were uncomfortable with changing societal norms.
If Cosby continues to raise a spurious specter of race to defend sexual assault, he will further exacerbate complex issues of race in this country. In doing so, he will increase his likelihood of conviction in a court of law, while simultaneously earning the enmity of his countrymen in the court of public opinion.
Mark R. Weaver is a Columbus attorney and former deputy attorney general of Ohio. He teaches at The Ohio State University College of Law and his new book is “A Wordsmith’s Work.” Twitter: @MarkRWeaver.