Put Aside Guilt or Innocence for a Minute. Cosby Is a Free Man Because He’s Rich.

Put Aside Guilt or Innocence for a Minute. Cosby Is a Free Man Because He’s Rich.

Patty Lamberti
 | 
There’s only one reason Bill Cosby was released from prison. It’s not that he’s a celebrity. It’s because he’s rich.

Our entire judicial system is set up to benefit the wealthy, whether they are innocent or not. Rich people can simply afford to play lawyers to look high and low for procedural errors. If you look long enough, you can probably find a procedural error in any courtroom case. Poor and middle-income people just can’t afford to pay lawyers to look around long enough to find those technicalities. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Cosby’s 2018 sexual assault conviction not because they think he’s innocent or miss hearing his jokes. They just believed a legal snafu justified his release. In their 79-page opinion, the judges wrote that in 2005, previous district attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr., told Cosby he would never face criminal charges for sexually assaulting  Andrea Constand, Cosby’s former mentee.

The Court claims that Castor’s assurance led Cosby to speak more freely than he perhaps should have when Constand filed a civil lawsuit against Cosby. During testimony for the civil case, Cosby admitted giving Quaaludes to women he was pursuing for sex. 

That admission ended up being a key part of his trial when Castor’s successors in the DA’s office – who had decided they no longer wanted to honor Castor’s pledge – filed criminal charge against Cosby in December 2015. 

Cosby's release stunned sexual assault survivors, and left many wondering if the criminal legal system can ever genuinely protect women. It left me wondering if the legal system can ever really protect the poor.
I bet a lot of imprisoned people are now wondering, “I wonder if can I get out of here based on some technicality or procedural error.”

It’s hard to accurately estimate how many Americans are wrongfully convicted and how many do indeed deserve to be sitting in prison, especially if the crime doesn’t involve DNA. According to a conservative estimate by the Innocence Project, approximately 1% of prisoners, about 20,000 people, have been wrongfully convicted of crimes involving DNA. That estimate doesn’t even involve those who were convicted based on false confessions, unprepared defense lawyers, wrongful arrests, and more.  A Penn University study found that in capital crimes, 3 to 5 percent of those found guilty are truly innocent. A more recent study suggest the rate of wrongful conviction is way higher, around 11.6%.

Whatever the number of wrongfully imprisoned Americans truly is, their chances for walking out of jail are slim, unless they can afford a Cosby-style, high powered, expensive legal team. 

To get a law firm to even agree to defend him, Cosby had to plunk down an $1 million retainer. 

  At one point, Cosby had 28 lawyers working on 10 cases involving 14 accusers across the country.  The lawyers made about $500 to $1,075 per hour.  His lawyers billed him for 11,000 hours, along with extra fees including $300,000 in online searches and $48,000 for a lawyer to read a few books about the Playboy Mansion, where one of the alleged Cosby assaults occurred. 

That’s on top of the retainer and interest. Yes, some law firms charge interest, just like credit card companies.  As the trial neared, he was paying lawyers over $1 million per month. By the time he was imprisoned, Cosby owed one firm $9.2 million. 

And how ironic is this?  Cosby couldn’t even afford his own Cosby-style defense team. 

In 2019, he filed a petition against his own lawyers to get the bill reduced. He claimed they had taken advantage of his age and vision problems. 

An arbitrator eventually decided Cosby owed the firm  $6.7 million. He still owes them $2 million. 

The take-home message? Sure, you can get your conviction overturned. It could happen fairly quickly if you have millions. 
But it will take longer, and sadly may not happen at all, if you don’t have money to toss around.

Until we genuinely reform the justice system in this country, rich men like Cosby will continue to whistle their way out of prison. And poor or middle-income Americans will sit – sometimes for no reason – in prison. If they are eventually released, they still pay for their crimes.  Felony records haunt people when they apply for loans, housing and jobs. The punishment doesn’t end the day they walk out of prison.  

Cosby’s story isn’t just about wealth disparity. It’s about race. Yes, I realize Cosby is Black. But unlike most Black and Brown Americans, Cosby had the money to pay his way to freedom. Although Black and Brown Americans represent only 32% of the US population, they account for 56% of the US incarcerated population, according to the NAACP. The NAACP reports that as of October 2016, there have been 1900 exonerations of the wrongfully accused. 47% of the exonerated were Black.

Right now, the judicial system is set up to fail the poor.  Lawmakers must change the policies that govern public defenders in an effort to ensure they are adequately resourced.

Lawyers have a terrible reputation, often perpetuated by attorneys like those who represented Cosby. In reality, most attorneys haven’t chosen to go into this profession just to make a lot of money (and there’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money).  One study found that the happiest lawyers are those who work with clients with similar values. These lawyers often work at small firms or in the public sector.

 We need to make sure there are ways for these lawyers, the ones who want to be happy and satisfied, to meet people who need them, i.e. the innocent who may not have a lot of money. Technology can help bridge the gap between these two groups.  For example, Davon Malcolm recently met Angela Dean, an experienced criminal defense attorney in Wisconsin, through LawChamps, an online platform that matches lawyers who have pledged to work within their clients’ budgets with the people who need legal help.

Malcom was convicted under questionable circumstances (talk about procedural errors) and the felony conviction continues to haunt him when it comes to finding secure housing and work.  As Angela says, “This is my ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg’ moment. I’m going to stand up and do the right thing because it needs to be done, regardless of time, cost and effort.”

We don’t need to read any more headlines about rich men walking out of prison just because they’re rich. It’s time to read about innocent people walking out of prison, just because they’re innocent.       
 

 

This article is intended to convey generally useful information only and does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the author, not Law Champs.

 

 
 

 
Patty Lamberti

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