Bill Cosby mugshot

Legendary comedian and Philadelphia fixture Bill Cosby has been charged with a felony for a sexual assault prosecutors say happened in 2004, after more than a year of highly-publicized, high-profile accusations, civil lawsuits and countersuits.

What took so long?

Dozens of women have come forward accusing Cosby of sexual assault in the last year alone, but few of the alleged incidents have occurred within a time period in which prosecutors were able to charge him — until now. Today, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney and soon-to-be District Attorney Kevin Steele announced a felony criminal charge of aggravated indecent assault against Cosby, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Here’s what happened and why he’s being charged now:

What the charges are

According to court documents filed today in Montgomery County, Cosby faces three parts of an aggravated indecent assault charge including assault without consent, assault when the complainant is unconscious and assault when the person impairs the complainant.

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Credit: Via online court documents

The charges stem from a January 2004 incident that took place in Cosby’s Montgomery County mansion. There, court records allege, Temple women’s basketball team employee Andrea Constand was asked by the comedian, TV legend and board member of the university that employed her to take three small pills, was given wine, and then was sexually assaulted by him. Steele said today that Constand was woozy and tired after taking the pills and was then rendered frozen and unable to move.

“A person in that state,” Steele said at this morning’s press conference carried live on CNN and other networks, as camera shutters clicked under the glare of TV lights, “cannot give consent.”

Each of the three charges Cosby faces filed by the Montgomery County DA’s office (and officially investigated by Cheltenham Township Police) are felonies in the second degree and carry prison sentences along with them. While sentencing guidelines and a judge’s discretion will ultimately determine what kind of sentence Cosby could receive if convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison based on the charges.

Officials also said during a press conference today that Constand is cooperating with prosecutors and would be willing to testify against Cosby.

Why they’re happening now

Bill Cosby was investigated on these same charges back in 2005, but then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor declined to prosecute based on information available at the time; he claimed that there was insufficient evidence to file charges. Constand filed a federal lawsuit shortly after the announcement that charges would not be filed.

The lawsuit was settled in 2006 and details were never released — until this summer, after dozens of women had come forward accusing Cosby of sexual assault. Those allegations followed a stream of events that began with a Hannibal Burress comedy show in Philadelphia when the younger comedian brought of the fact that Cosby had been accused of rape. The bit was video-taped, circulated on the Internet, and the court of public opinion largely took over.

Then in July, a federal court granted a request made by the Associated Press and it unsealed documents from the federal lawsuit in which Cosby admitted to using quaaludes to drug women that he wanted to have sex with. Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman re-opened the case this year.

And it was just in the knick of time. Pennsylvania’s 12-year statute of limitations on felony sex crimes means that charges would have had to have been filed by January. Otherwise, prosecutors would have missed their window.

What comes next

Cosby will be arraigned at 4 p.m. today in Elkins Park in Montgomery County. That’s when a judge will weigh the charges and determine whether there’s enough evidence for Cosby to face trial; the judge will also set bail.

After that, new Montgomery County District Attorney Steele and his team will begin building their case against this comedy legend. Constand’s case matches up with the stories told by other women who accused Cosby of sexual violence, many of whom said they were also drugged before being assaulted.

But the clock has run out for many of those victims. Steele’s office and the charges filed in Montgomery County could be the only shot.

Here is the full criminal complaint detailing charges:

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Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.