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Cleveland area advocates for sexual assault survivors react to release of Bill Cosby

Advocates at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center hope Cosby's overturned conviction won't discourage survivors from coming forward.

CLEVELAND — Local advocates of sexual assault survivors reacted to the news Wednesday that 83-year-old actor and comedian Bill Cosby is now a free man, after his conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Cosby's record is wiped clean, and he cannot be retried.

"Sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes, so when a survivor makes that brave decision to report to the criminal justice system, it's one that's well thought out," said Teresa Stafford, Chief Program Officer at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. "So I think what happened today only highlights how complicated our criminal justice center is for survivors of sexual violence."

Justices decided to throw out Cosby's convictions on charges of aggravated indecent assault against former Temple University employee Andrea Constand. The decision dates back to former prosecutor Bruce Castor, who said there was not enough evidence to try Cosby but made a verbal agreement not to prosecute if Cosby would give a deposition in a civil case.

That deposition was later used by a different prosecutor, and led to Cosby's arrest, trial and convictions.

3News reached out to Michael Benza, professor of criminal law at Case Western Reserve University, who agreed with the Pennsylvania high court's ruling.

"Like it or not, the answer is right," he declared. "The Pennsylvania court's decision said it isn't fair for prosecutors to say, 'You have immunity, and then when you do exactly what the immunity says you are supposed to do, we're going to take away that immunity and bring prosecution.'"

As many as 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual crimes, ranging from groping to sexual assault and rape. But because many of the cases are decades old, statutes of limitations mean further prosecutions are unlikely.

"How we respond to the situation of today can impact survivors," said Stafford, adding she hopes the news does not discourage sexual assault survivors from coming forward. "If survivors hear that, yes, it was a technicality but it didn't change the testimony and the belief of that survivor in that moment, and that we believe them, then that survivor who's on the fence may still go forward because they have that type of support behind them."

Stafford believes justice often has to take some other form outside of the courtroom. For many, just being heard and believed can be healing.   

"Justice can be beyond the criminal justice system for some survivors, especially when we know that a small percentage actually spend any time in prison," she said.

The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center wants you to know that you don't have to suffer alone. For help, call/text: (216) 619-6192 or (440) 423-2020, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or visit their website here.