NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania (REUTERS) - Bill Cosby, who cultivated a father-figure image over decades, was charged on Wednesday with sexually assaulting a woman at his home in 2004 in the first criminal case against the comedian accused of misconduct by dozens of women.
An arrest warrant was issued for the 78-year-old Cosby after the charges were filed in Pennsylvania just before the statute of limitations for a criminal prosecution was to expire in January. The charges stemmed from allegations brought by a woman who settled a civil case against Cosby in 2006.
"Today, after examination of all the evidence, we are able to seek justice on behalf of the victim," Kevin Steele, the newly elected district attorney for Montgomery County, told a news conference.
The accuser in the case, Andrea Constand, a former basketball team manager at Temple University in Philadelphia, Cosby's alma mater, is one of more than 50 women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them in incidents dating back decades.
Neither the entertainer nor his representatives could be reached immediately for comment. He and his lawyers, while acknowledging marital infidelity on Cosby's part, have consistently denied allegations of sexual misconduct.
Cosby, who personified the model American family man in his long-running hit television show, was charged with aggravated indecent assault, which is a second-degree felony carrying a maximum penalty of five to ten years in prison and a US$25,000 (S$35,423) fine.
According to an affidavit accompanying the charges, the victim was a guest at Cosby's home in Cheltenham near Philadelphia one evening in January 2004, when he gave her wine and urged her to take three blue pills, prosecutors said in a statement.
"Shortly thereafter, the victim became incapacitated, and Cosby led her to a couch. The victim lay down ... and Cosby positioned himself behind her. Cosby then fondled the victim's breasts, put his hands inside her pants, and penetrated her vagina with his fingers," prosecutors said. "The victim did not consent to any of these acts and reported that she was unable to move or speak and felt 'frozen' and 'paralysed,'" prosecutors said.
Steele said the case was brought after new information came to light this year, adding that the victim was willing to cooperate.
"This is a very significant development," Gloria Allred, a lawyer who has represented 29 of the accusers, told CNN. Some of them have brought civil suits against Cosby.
The accusations have shocked Cosby's fans and crushed his reputation as an entertainer and father figure.
Many of them occurred decades ago and the statute of limitations for prosecuting them expired long ago.
A portion of a sworn deposition that Cosby gave in 2005-2006 in the civil suit brought by Constand was made public earlier this year. In it, Cosby acknowledged under questioning that he had obtained Quaaludes, a sedative that was a popular recreational drug in the 1970s, intending to give them to young women in order to have sex with them.
About his encounter with Constand, Cosby said under oath that it was consensual and that he gave her some Benadryl, an anti-allergy medication, to relax her.
Constand, who has sought in court to unseal the record of her civil case and settlement with Cosby, said in legal documents filed in July that she is a lesbian, despite his sworn assertions that their encounter was consensual and that he has a knack for reading women’s cues.
“I think that I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things, whatever you want to call them,” he said in the excerpt, published by The New York Times.
Cosby has stressed through his attorneys and in court filings that the deposition excerpts contained no testimony that he engaged in any non-consensual sex or gave Quaaludes to anyone without their knowledge or consent.
In October, Cosby gave a separate deposition in a California lawsuit brought by another woman who has accused him of sexually abusing her when she was 15.
Earlier this month, Cosby sued seven of his accusers, saying the women who said they were assaulted were lying and had defamed his "honourable legacy and reputation".
The actor is best known for playing Dr Cliff Huxtable, the family patriarch in the TV sitcom The Cosby Show, which was one of the country's highest-rated television shows in the 1980s.