NORRISTOWN, PA—Heidi Thomas was the first accuser to testify at Bill Cosby’s criminal retrial. As her hours on the stand drew to their conclusion, she made one thing clear: “I want to see a serial rapist convicted.”
Thomas is the first of five “prior bad acts witnesses” that will be called testify at Cosby’s retrial. The prosecution aims to depict Cosby as a serial predator, a master manipulator who methodically pursued, isolated, drugged, and assaulted his victims. To that end, they had hoped to put 19 of Cosby’s accusers, prior bad acts witnesses all, on the stand. Judge Steven T. O’Neill ruled that five such witnesses — selected from the eight most recent allegations, dating back to the mid-1980s — could be called to testify this time out. (At the original trial, only one — Kelly Johnson, who says Cosby drugged and assaulted her in 1996 when she was working as an assistant for his William Morris agent — was permitted to testify.)
Thomas alleges that Cosby assaulted her in April 1984, when she was 24 years old.
As Cosby’s defense team signaled from the outset of their opening statements on Tuesday, their goal is to depict Cosby’s key accuser Andrea Constand as a liar motivated by the dream of an easy cash payout. So the prosecution surely hopes the jury will believe Thomas has no such ulterior motives. For her part, Thomas has no legal representation (“I don’t have any reason for a lawyer”) and has never been paid to tell her story, which she first publicly disclosed in January 2015.
But during a cross-examination that continued well into Wednesday morning, defense attorney Kathleen Bliss questioned Thomas on the multitude of interviews she gave after going public, her communications with Constand, and a discrepancy in the timeline she offered when she first spoke out about her encounter with Cosby.
As she began her testimony Tuesday afternoon, Thomas described herself as a naïve, bright-eyed Colorado native who adored musical theater who, after winning the Miss Littleton Pageant while in college, started modeling because her agency, JF images, told her it would help pay her bills as she pursued an acting career. (In reality, Thomas said, it was her equity gig at the oh-so-glamorous Country Dinner Playhouse that kept her lights on while she poured money into glossy headshots for her portfolio.)
Her demeanor was upbeat. Her story was chilling. Sent by her agency to receive acting coaching from “an icon” she later learned was Cosby, she was rerouted by Cosby’s driver from the Reno hotel where she was told she’d be staying to a ranch house on the fringes of the city. After a single sip of white wine — taken, she said, only because Cosby told her to, as she was performing a monologue he’d chosen in which her character was intoxicated — she described her recollection of what followed as long stretches of darkness punctuated by flashes of surreal horror.
Thomas referred to the memories of her encounter with Cosby as mere “snapshots.” She testified that she first regained consciousness in a bed, a naked Cosby atop her, forcing himself in her mouth; later, she woke up again to the sound of Cosby’s voice saying, “Your friend is going to come again.”
As Thomas tells it, hers was a sheltered existence — she referred to herself, twice, as “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” — so she made a practice of saving souvenirs from her travels. The jury was shown pages and pages of her scrapbook, stuffed with the airline tickets from her Reno trip, the advertisement for Cosby’s performance at Harrah’s she was supposed to see while she was in town, and photographs she took with her Kodak Instamatic of the house and property where she says she stayed.
But Thomas’ scrapbook also included a boarding pass which Bliss pointed to as proof that Thomas’ timeline didn’t add up.
Bliss pressed Thomas, who testified that she had traveled to Reno, Nevada in 1982 to meet with Cosby at the time of her assault, about the fact that the April 2nd departure date on Thomas’ boarding pass had been crossed out — and how that date failed to line up with Thomas’ version of events, which has her flying out on April Fool’s Day. The later departure date calls into question, as Bliss put it, “this four-day odyssey in which you found yourself in Reno.”
Bliss asked about what compensation Thomas received for the interviews she’s given since going public; Thomas said none, save for coverage of her hotels and airfare. Since she had to miss work on those days and pay for her own meals, she said, “In a sense, I lost money.”
Thomas abandoned her acting and modeling work shortly after the alleged assault and she’s been a “homemaker” and music teacher ever since. She framed this choice as a happy one that has allowed her to have “a normal life.”
“I wasn’t liking what I was learning about that industry,” she said. And by leaving the entertainment field, “The dream of what I really did want came true,” Thomas said. “Sounds corny, but it’s true.” She has three daughters with her husband of 32 years.
Bliss, who started her cross-examination with a series of questions about Thomas getting the acting “bug,” returned to Thomas’ participation in the Cosby interview circuit since she first went public. “Since coming out in January, you have a lot of attention, wouldn’t you agree?” Bliss asked. Thomas, with some edge in her voice, replied, “I’m sure that’s what many people would say, yes.”
Thomas said she spoke out because “there were women coming forward and they were not being believed…I wanted to support them.” She cited a similar justification for a Facebook message she sent to Constand that included the line, ‘I’ve got your back, sister.’” “I just wanted her to know,” Thomas said, “there was somebody out there who knew she was telling the truth.”
Many of those media appearances, Thomas said, were made in the service of her campaign to extend the statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault cases in Colorado from 10 to 20 years. “We were successful,” she said. “With that success comes a lot of media buzz.”
Whether or not the jury finds Thomas believable depends, in part, on how effective they found the testimony of the witness who spoke before her: Dr. Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychologist who studies behaviors of sexual assault victims, dedicated her time on the stand to debunking popular rape myths.
Ziv testified that it is extremely common for sexual assault survivors to “feel a sense of blame” about their victimization, and that it’s also typical for victims to stay in touch with their assailants. “A [victim’s] first impulse is to try to find a way to make it make sense,” Ziv said. “And the only way that you can do that is by having contact with that individual again.”
Thomas described the way she questioned her own culpability for what happened to her and her desire to follow up with Cosby, “to get him to talk with me about our visit in Reno and help me understand, where did I go wrong? What did I do that led him to believe that that activity was okay?” She said she flew to see him in St. Louis, but never got the opportunity to be alone with him again or ask him any questions about their encounter.
She did, however, manage to get a photograph with him, which she said made Cosby angry. “At that point, it was very clear that this mentorship thing wasn’t happening. I wasn’t going to get answers,” she said. “So I really didn’t care if he was happy or not.”
In the photo, Thomas and Cosby have their arms around each other. Her head is leaning on his shoulder. They’re smiling.
If the jury accepts Ziv’s testimony as credible, that picture would align with common survivor behavior. If not, a juror could easily construe the photograph as one depicting two people who like each other and who share no history of violence.
While cross-examining Ziv, Bliss pushed hard on this point: That virtually any behavior Ziv claimed was normal for a sexual assault victim would also “not be uncommon for people who are lying.”
The range of behaviors described by Ziv as being common to survivors of sexual violence was so vast — some victims try to act normally, some shut down completely, some become suicidal, some become promiscuous, and on and on — it could encompass the whole of human interaction, including people who are lying about having been sexually assaulted. Ziv pointed out that the percentage of false allegations is difficult to ascertain (it’s difficult to prove a negative) but that “historically, the numbers have been low.” Her best estimate hovered between two and five percent.
“Sexual assault is one of the most misunderstood crimes,” Ziv said. It is “unusual in that we hold the victim accountable, to some extent, depending on who you are.”
And while Americans “have come a long enough way to know that victims of sexual assault haven’t brought it on themselves,” the country has been slower to let go of certain insidious misconceptions about sexual violence. “What is still part of the US rape myth is, we blame the victims for not being the kind of victim that we think that they should be.”