Bill Cosby's lawyers say he is blind. Will that affect his case?

Bill Cosby’s lawyers say his status as a legally blind man may prevent him from receiving a fair trial. How well does the criminal justice system accommodate the blind?

Matt Rourke/AP/File
Bill Cosby arrives for a pretrial hearing in his sexual assault case at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. in September.

Bill Cosby’s legal team has filed a motion arguing that the actor’s vision impairment may render him unable to defend himself against accusations of sexual assault and unfit to stand trial.

Dozens of women have accused the now-79-year-old entertainer of having sexually assaulted them, filing suits in civil courts after statutes of limitations on the alleged crimes passed. But one woman who alleges Mr. Cosby assaulted her in 2004 at his home near Philadelphia has brought criminal accusations against him that fall within Pennsylvania’s criminal statute of limitations. While the decades-old allegations have shed light on a nationwide lack of sexual assault reporting, particularly when an attacker is a rich and powerful man, they’ve also ignited a debate over how to handle such cases.

Now, Cosby’s lawyers say the elderly man with impaired vision won’t be able to recognize his accusers and will struggle to build a legal defense for himself, raising the question of how legal standards should be applied to those with disabilities. 

"No 79-year-old blind man could possibly defend himself against a claim that he sexually assaulted someone he supposedly met once, half a century ago — and the Commonwealth knows it," the motion said. "Without his eyesight, Mr. Cosby cannot even determine whether he has ever even seen some of his accusers, let alone develop defenses and gather exculpatory evidence."

Cosby faces three counts of felony aggravated indecent assault in relation to the alleged 2004 incident. At the time, his accuser, Andrea Constand, was employed at Cosby’s alma mater, Temple University, and said she came to his home for a career consultation. There, he allegedly gave her a cocktail mix of wine and pills before assaulting her.

During a hearing last month, a judge told the defense to seek any necessary accommodations for Cosby’s vision impairment before his trial slated to begin next June. His team has taken that a step farther by adding the impairment to a growing list of reasons for throwing the case out of court.

While the blind actor may face limitations in the courtroom, any potential prison sentence accompanying a conviction could amplify those challenges.

Blind inmates often find themselves alienated in prisons where resources are sometimes scarce and officials are unable to accommodate them. Burl Washington, an inmate at a federal prison in South Carolina who went blind while behind bars, doesn’t have access to any materials that would allow him to learn braille and has trouble navigating the prison without the help of a fellow inmate.

“Now I spend my days sitting in my cell, limiting myself to my direct surroundings,” he wrote in an essay for The Marshall Project. “It’s easier this way, even if it feels like I’ve put myself in solitary confinement. I used to participate in prison programs, used to work in the kitchen, used to go out to the recreation yard all the time.”

But courts have continued to put blind perpetrators on trial and prosecute them. In 2013, a Canadian court ruled to place a blind man convicted of rape on house arrest, arguing that he would face harsher conditions at a prison than those who could see. That lax sentencing was later overturned by an appeals court, who sentenced him to 90 days in prison to be served on the weekends.

"Although imprisonment may have a disproportionate effect on the disabled, this cannot be used to forgo the imposition of custodial sentences where it would otherwise be warranted," the court ruled in its decision.

Prosecutors have yet to respond to the latest motion, but have hailed Cosby’s previous filings to secure a 2005 deposition as attempts to derail the case, which already took nearly a decade to build.

"This wealthy, celebrity defendant, armed with a cadre of high-priced lawyers, made sure that his incriminating deposition testimony remained a closely guarded secret for a decade," Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele wrote in a filing earlier this month. "It is [Cosby] himself who has used the legal system to keep the deposition secret and used a scorched-earth approach to criminal justice in an attempt to delay and derail this case."

The prosecution plans to call other women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault but not reported it to authorities to testify at the trial. His defense argues that he likely won’t remember the women, if he’s met them, without being able to see them better.

Cosby has registered as legally blind and is expected to file a doctor’s report this week. He has denied sexually assaulting anyone and entered a not guilty plea on the three counts in Pennsylvania.

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