The mistrial declared Saturday in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial underscores once again how hard it is to prove a sexual assault allegation, particularly against a powerful man like the iconic comic.

Bill Cosby on June 15, 2017, in Norristown, Pa.

After so many allegations across so many decades, it's astounding that Cosby has been able to walk away unpunished by the criminal justice system, if not unscathed.

Among the reasons:

  • The allegations against Cosby come from women who were acquaintances or dates. Date rape wasn’t even part of the lexicon in the 1960s and '70s, when many of the alleged assaults occurred. Even today, women often face a hostile or skeptical response when they report hard-to-prove date rapes, where, like Andrea Constand, they know their attacker and went to his home voluntarily. Rape is easier for juries to believe when assaults are committed by a stranger who jumps out of some bushes with a gun or knife, not with “three blue pills,” as Constand testified Cosby gave her one night in 2004. Despite the weight of the evidence supporting her account, inconsistencies in her original reports to police made it difficult for the jury to agree unanimously on guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • Cosby wore not only the protective shroud of megastardom, but also an image as America’s dad, the wise and lovable Dr. Cliff Huxtable of Cosby Show fame. Most of his alleged victims were young and unknown —  an aspiring actress of 19, a secretary at a talent agency, a 21-year-old working for a film producer — no match in a he-said, she-said battle with Cosby. Even the news media all but shrugged when Tamara Green, a lawyer, went on NBC’s Today in 2005 and accused Cosby of drugging, undressing and groping her in the 1970s. Her story got some coverage, but slipped quickly out of sight. Perhaps the idea of the TV father figure and sexual misdeeds just didn’t pass a credibility test. Then again, Dr. Huxtable was a role, not a real person.

  • Cosby’s cause was also aided by a dangerous trend: the ease with which judges, who should be looking out for the public, grant secrecy. In a sworn deposition in 2005, in a civil case brought by Constand, Cosby admitted he had obtained Quaaludes with the idea of giving them to women he wanted to have sex with, and that he gave them to one young woman and “other people.” But that admission stayed secret until a decade later, when a federal judge lifted the seal that Cosby and his lawyers fought feverishly to hide.  If not for court-sanctioned secrecy, his accusers might have known about each other and been more willing to come forward.

Whether Cosby also was enabled by show business insiders who knew of his reputation is unclear. But what ultimately spurred the explosion of public accusers was a routine by comedian Hannibal Buress during an October 2014 show in Philadelphia.

Buress ribbed Cosby for moralizing to other comedians and black youth, ending the bit: “But you raped women, Bill Cosby, so it kinda brings you down a couple notches."  The comments went viral. Soon, more than a dozen women had publicly accused Cosby of assaulting them, often after drugging them. By now, that number has grown to about 60, an almost impossible to discount he-said, they-said.

In the courtroom in Norristown, Pa., the jurors saw the witnesses up close and heard every word of testimony. They deliberated more than 50 hours and still could not reach a verdict. Their efforts merit respect. But prosecutors announced they will conduct a new trial, and already the sheer volume of similar-sounding accusations has cost Cosby dearly in the court of public opinion.

More important for future victims is to remove the cultural and legal obstacles — from celebrity worship to court secrecy — that still make it too difficult for women to get justice after they've been sexually assaulted. 

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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