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The differences between civil and criminal sexual assault cases

In light of the recent mistrial declared in the criminal case against Bill Cosby, it is a good time to re-examine the difference between criminal and civil cases involving sexual assault.

The Cosby mistrial

The jury trial in the Bill Cosby case was unable to reach a verdict. In such cases, the court declares a mistrial, freeing up the prosecution to decide whether to charge the defendant again. Deciding to do so would mean starting the trial from the beginning, with a different jury.

The criminal charges stemmed from a civil lawsuit filed by Andrea Constand, who alleged that Bill Cosby used Quaaludes as a sedative in order to sexually assault her in 2004. In criminal cases of sexual assault, the decision to file criminal charges is in the hands of the prosecutor responsible for trying the case. Prosecutors have said they will retry Mr. Cosby.

Previous civil case ended in settlement

The criminal charges first arose from a deposition given by Mr. Cosby in 2015 in the civil case against him. In the deposition, he admitted to giving Quaaludes to women, although he denied he sexually assaulted Ms. Constand.

Rather than go to trial, the plaintiffs in the case settled with Mr. Cosby for an undisclosed amount. There were several women who joined the lawsuit.

What about double jeopardy?

Mr. Cosby has already settled numerous civil cases alleging sexual assault. However, double jeopardy only comes into play when a criminal defendant is found not guilty. A defendant cannot be tried twice when previously found innocent. If there is a mistrial, or if there were previous civil lawsuits, double jeopardy does not apply.

The burden of proof

One of the biggest differences in a civil case and a criminal case is the burden of proof. In criminal cases, the prosecutors must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In civil cases, however, the burden is by the “preponderance of the evidence.” Essentially, this means jurors must be convinced of someone’s guilt in order to convict them criminally. In a civil case, however, jurors must only find it more likely than not that the incident or behavior in question occurred.

What does it mean for sexual assault victims?

Criminal cases are largely out of the hands of victims. While victims would certainly like to see people who act criminally convicted for their crimes, the sad truth is that victims have little control over the outcome.

However, victims do have options in civil lawsuits. If sexually assaulted by a person with wealth, fame and power, a civil lawsuit may be the best option for holding that person accountable.

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