AP pursuit of Cosby documents was the key to generating sex assault charge

 Bill Cosby wends through a crowd to District Court in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, where he was required to post bail and surrender his passport after being charged with sexual assault. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Bill Cosby wends through a crowd to District Court in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, where he was required to post bail and surrender his passport after being charged with sexual assault. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

There’s a testy exchange in the movie “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigation into child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, between the paper’s recently appointed editor and its publisher.

“You wanna sue the Catholic Church?” says the publisher, played by John Slattery.

“Um. We’re just filing a motion, but, yes,” responds the new newsroom boss, played by Marty Baron.

“You think it’s that important?” the publisher says.

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“Yes I do.”

The Globe’s motion persuaded a judge to unseal documents that turned out to hold some of the most damning evidence against the church.

The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office said the sexual assault charges leveled against Cosby on Wednesday were triggered after a move not that dissimilar. 

Attorneys for Associated Press reporter Maryclaire Dale filed a motion to unseal depositions of Cosby answering questions from investigators over four days in 2005. The conversations were part of a civil lawsuit filed by a Cosby accuser that was settled and never went to trial.

Dale won on July 6, 2015, when U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ordered that the AP’s motion to intervene and obtain access to documents under seal be granted.

“It was a very good day,” said attorney Gayle Sproul, who represented Dale in the motion. “She’s been very persistent. Obviously, we have a lot of admiration and respect for what reporters do, we represent them for that reason all the time. And she never forgot.”

Robreno said in his memorandum that Cosby’s positioning as a “public moralist” infused the depositions with real public value, something worth more than protecting Cosby’s privacy, Robreno wrote.

Montgomery County District Attorney-elect Kevin Steele told reporters that the release of those interviews caused prosecutors to reopen the case that, shortly before the statute of limitations expired, led to three counts of aggravated indecent assault, which are felony counts.

The documents could have been unsealed two years after the civil case settled, which is customary for the court, though they were not — at the insistence of Cosby’s attorneys.

AP attorney Sproul said the story the unsealed interviews generated was a big scoop, but they didn’t anticipate criminal charges to follow.

Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents dozens of Cosby accusers, said Cosby’s deposition might have stayed out of the public eye forever, but for the AP’s persistence.

“I think the Associated Press wanted transparency, and they were able to get transparency,” Allred said.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple said Cosby’s attacks on the media for picking up the stories of accusers really backfired.

“It adds a little schadenfreude on top,” Wemple said. “Or adds a little bit of mustard on top, that Cosby’s lawyers made these arguments that it was a violation of privacy.”

But, by and large, the media dropped the ball on the Cosby story, Wemple said.

“I mean, these women have been around for a long time. So I think it’s important that the media make up for its sins, errors and omissions in this particular story,” he said.

It’s common for besieged celebrities to take swings at the media. It’s a deflection that speaks to the American public, Wemple said, because the public’s opinion of the media isn’t always so glowing.

Stories that are underpinned with rock-solid reporting, though, serve as a compelling response, he said.

“Because when the media has documents behind it, and when it has truth behind it, that becomes a powerful staying mechanism,” Wemple said. “And I think that’s the case here.”

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