“Because the fact is, Cosby is innocent of rape”

Good god – can Brendan O’Neill really be that thick? Confusing Bill Cosby’s ontological status with his legal status?

Bill Cosby – what a creep. Drugging all those women, molesting them, raping some. Can you believe we worshipped this guy when he played the joke-making everyman Cliff Huxtable in the Eighties? Well, now we know better. He isn’t the loveable avuncular dude we all thought he was. Rather, as those memes slicing through the internet like knives in Caesar’s back reveal, he’s a ‘serial rapist’. As one especially popular internet tag has it: ‘America’s fave dad by day – serial rapist by night.’

That has been the tenor of the discussion about Cosby on the web over the past fortnight. And it has been as ugly as hell: vindictive, gossip-fuelled, backward and positively medieval in its rush to condemn a man before he has been found guilty of a crime. Whatever you think of Cosby – I remember even as a kid I thought The Cosby Show was pants – this media-led public criminalisation of someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime should chill you. Because the fact is, Cosby is innocent of rape.

Just as you are. Just as I am. At least until such a time as someone does the very hard job of proving beyond reasonable doubt that he did rape someone. There’s a phrase for this, I think. How does it go? Ah, yes: ‘A man is presumed innocent until proven guilty.’

No, not a man, Brendan. A person, an accused, a defendant – not a man. It applies to women too.

But never mind that. Dear god is he kidding? The fact that X is presumed innocent in a court of law does not equate to “X is innocent.” The “phrase” he trots out itself doesn’t say that – it doesn’t say “is innocent,” it says “is presumed innocent.” There’s a difference.

The presumption of innocence matters in court, and it matters for what can legally be said, which is why news media use the word “alleged” so liberally. But it doesn’t change the facts. It’s possible for a guilty person to be acquitted in court and it’s possible for an innocent person to be convicted in court. Neither of those changes the facts either. X is innocent if X is innocent, not if a court finds X not guilty.

So, no. O’Neill is completely wrong to say “the fact is, Cosby is innocent of rape.” He doesn’t know that, just as I don’t know Cosby is guilty of rape. He and I both don’t know what the fact is.

Does Bill Cosby rape women? Has he ever? We don’t know, but justice – Enlightenment itself – demands that we say, ‘No. Prove otherwise if you can.’

No, it does not. O’Neill is confusing how the legal system is required to treat defendants with what everyone else is supposed to say and think about them. Justice doesn’t require us to pretend we know defendants are innocent any more than it requires us to pretend we know they’re guilty.

I have news for these twenty-first-century Salemites: Bill Cosby, we must presume, is innocent. And given that the passing of the statute of limitations means he’s very unlikely to be brought to court to face his accusers, he will remain innocent. I’m sorry if that gets in the way of your search for a demon to yell about, but that’s life: liberty and justice are more important than your weird psychological need for evil.

Ah yes, so if a guy succeeds in getting away with rape for years by the simple expedient of drugging his victims so that their testimony becomes worthless, then hahahahaha statute of limitations you lose and HE’S INNOCENT so hahaha suck it.

Horrible man.


  1. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    Of course the intellectual and ethical errors on display in O’Neill’s piece are widely shared amongst Skeptical types.

  2. PatrickG says

    Just left a comment on that article right before visiting here… That last paragraph is just jaw-droppingly awful.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    Ah, yes – more of the “Good Juror Pose” – you covered that not too long ago with a guest post: http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2014/02/guest-post-by-bruce-everett-the-good-juror-pose/

    Remember? Or, rather, when will we have an opportunity to forget? When every few days someone in a position of privilege and power is attempting to invoke lack of actual conviction and/or evidence that will hold up in a court of law in an attempt to get away with violating others’ rights. The whole “Of COURSE I’m innocent! Where’s the evidence?? Smear campaign! Blackmail! Jealousy! Character assassination! All because I’m such a privileged and powerful man! They’re all out to get me!! Plots! Collusion!” Etc.

  4. decker says

    I don’t care about Brenden O. This isn’t about how or who, it’s about the veracity of the What.

    What is the extent, if any, of Cosby’s guilt.

    Did he do this? Did he commit these rapes?

    Who cares about B.O,

  5. culuriel says

    Does O’Neill really think that any sane women should ever be alone with this man? Does he think women should disregard warnings from other women, and just assume that because Cosby’s never been convicted, that the man must be totally safe? Innocent until proven guilty does not apply to anyone’s personal safety.

  6. says

    So the only crimes ever committed are those that come to trial and result in a guilty verdict. The others just didn’t happen. Right.

  7. forestdragon says

    So if I drugged him into helplessness, took a knife, sliced off his nose and flushed it down the toilet and skipped town for twenty years, I could escape prosecution? Good to know.

  8. screechymonkey says


    Exactly. John Wilkes Booth did not shoot Abraham Lincoln. Lee Harvey Oswald did not shoot JFK. Richard Nixon did not obstruct justice.

    Also, John Scopes did not teach evolution to his class.

  9. chrislawson says

    If that’s O’Neill’s standard, then Al Capone’s only crime was tax evasion, and Stalin never did anything wrong at all!

  10. chrislawson says

    screechymonkey: actually, Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution (which was the entire purpose of the exercise), but the court fined him a nominal sum.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    chrislawson @ # 11 – But then a higher state court voided that fine because the judge set the amount, while the law specified that job belonged to the jury.

    So Scopes did it, but then he didn’t – per O’Neill “logic”, anyhow. (I’ve seen a report – dunno whether to believe it, since no court made an Official Ruling – that Scopes later claimed he was coaching basketball at the time of the alleged lesson, but copped to doing it so the issue could go to trial.)

  12. says

    A line from A Man For All Seasons comes to mind*: “The world must construe according to its wits; this court must construe according to the law”. I’m in the first clause of that sentence, so I get to use my wits — and that’s OK, because I don’t have the power to send anyone to prison, and the consequences of me being wrong are, well pretty much zilch as far as Cosby** is concerned.

    That being said, I would pay attention to any criminal trial, because sometimes those things do actually manage to lay out the evidence, and who-did-what-exactly, in a way that helps me to come to a better conclusion than random media coverage beforehand. Which also is an example of me using my wits.

    *Because we did it in high school and some things just stick with you, often for no particular reason.
    **Or, as I invariably mentally substitute, Jian Gomeshi.

  13. Crimson Clupeidae says

    So, way back when the feds eventually managed to lock up that famous gangster for fraud(?) on racketeering charges, we can all rest assured that he wasn’t also guilty of anything else, because he was never convicted.

    Weird how assholes like O’Niell keep wanting to defend the clever (in the sinister sense) criminals. Makes one wonder if they’ve something to hide, as well.

  14. rilian says

    “your weird psychological need for evil.”
    I think it’s more like a weird psychological need to not be raped. Except it’s not weird.

  15. says

    …its rush to condemn a man before he has been found guilty of a crime.

    Sounds like pompous self-important French people defending Roman Polanski against those horrible primitive uncultured Americans who are so obsessed with punishing people for violent crimes that they fail to appreciate what a great artiste he is.

  16. Kevin Kehres says

    And, of course, completely ignoring the fact that the legal status of “presumed innocent” is an American invention. In the UK, it’s the opposite. You’re assumed to be guilty because otherwise, why would the police have arrested you?

    One of the little things the Founding Fathers thought needed fixing.

  17. screechymonkey says

    Kevin Kehres @18,

    Even in the U.S., the whole “presumption of innocence” thing has limited application. Someone who has not yet been convicted can be held in jail — or forced to post a substantial amount of property as bail to avoid it. That’s a pretty serious restriction on one’s liberty; I would say a lot more serious than having other people express opinions on your guilt.

  18. marypoppins says

    @18 I think you are wrong about this being an American invention. To check my memory I had a quick look at Wikipedia which agrees with my memory. Used in Roman times.

  19. xxxxxx says

    I hope, in his case, O’Neill’s title of “editor” was an honorary. His misunderstanding of fundamental jurisprudence here merely demonstrates that at the the moment of his own birth, he no doubt became the proverbial sucker born that minute predicted by the infamous misattribution never spoken by P.T. Barnum.

  20. says

    @maypoppins #21, agreed on @kevinkehres’ claim at #18. The presumption of innocence concept was set aside in much/most of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, but was reintroduced during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and the famous phrase “innocent until proven guilty” was coined by an English lawyer.

    Olivia’s major point regarding the crucial difference between the standards required of jurors and officers of the court versus what happens in the arena of public opinion remains no matter the origin of the concept anyway. The British public is indeed very likely to react with a “no smoke without fire” response to many investigations and subsequent prosecutions, but (a) that’s not how officers of the court proceed in actual trials (no matter what their private opinions might be); and (b) the British public is hardly unique in forming such opinions as a result of media coverage that leans towards the lurid. In actual fact, given that the American press is not so restrained by laws enforcing the principle of sub judice as the British press, I find it far more likely that the US public is more swayed by media coverage that appeals to their pre-existing biases* than even(!) the British.

    *these biases will be distributed amongst the population along all points of the “no smoke without fire”/”but someone like that couldn’t possibly”/”I knew there was something going on”/”it wouldn’t surprise me at all” spectrum and points in between and adjacent.

  21. marypoppins says

    The idea of innocent until proven guilt was used in French law, based on Roman law. It was apparently used in the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” in 1789. It apparently entered American law in 1894 when it was used in the case of Coffin v. U.S. This case reviewed the history of the concept tracing it back to Roman law. Their review determined that it had long been part of the common law but was first mention in common law jurisdictions in 1802 by a Dublin barrister – a time when Ireland was “British”.

  22. marypoppins says

    I also agree that many people will think the “no smoke without fire”. I am not sure how the different media coverage affects people’s perceptions. Being Canadian I am more familiar with Canadian law. One of the major difference is that the US Grand Jury is not public while the Canadian equivalent the preliminary hearing is public but has a publication ban. More than one US journalist has gotten in trouble for not understanding this.

  23. Maureen Brian says

    Kevin Kehres @ 18,

    Er, no. I wasn’t entirely certain whether you whether you were joking there.

    Just to back up what tigtog and marypoppins are saying, the principle is that the burden of proof lies on the accuser (and the state) to establish the truth of the accusation, not on the defendant to prove anything at all. That principle exists in Roman Law and, indeed, in Islamic law.

    It was Sir William Garrow (1760 – 1840) who coined the phrase we use today but it applies only to what happens within the court. The usual remedies are available if someone is defamed by individuals or the media in the course of an investigation. But, then, the court is a place set apart where the facts and the facts alone are tried, in the old sense of the word – i.e. tested.

    There is a useful plain language summary here from the perspective of the UK – http://www.legalsource360.com/index.php/the-presumption-of-innocence-in-criminal-law-218/ – and I read somewhere (which I now can’t find again) that the concept was first used in a US court in 1894.

    Nothing in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” prevents, for instance, the police from investigating a possible crime or asking the public for more information, the newspapers from covering the matter within limits, or the general public from forming an opinion. Or several opinions.

    It simply means that no citizen and no agent of the state may take it upon himself to punish the perhaps-to-be defendant unless and until the trial is completed. This is what worries some of us about the US – that an awful lot of people seem to be fatally shot where there has been no trial and where even if they had been found guilty the punishment would have been modest.

    Compare and contrast the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO with events in Woolwich where two politically motivated assassins had butchered Lee Rigby in the middle of the day and in a busy town centre. The first police to arrive were unarmed. The firearms team swiftly followed and brought the two down with carefully aimed, non-fatal shots after which they were carted off to the hospital for repairs and later tried and found guilty.

    The question of whether a defendant is held in custody – sometimes for his own protection – or asked to post bail is based on a separate risk assessment of the possibility that he may abscond or of witness tampering. It is not part of the trial, though a different judge – not the one who’ll oversee the trial – has to confirm that the arrangements are legal and justified.

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