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Bill Cosby in court on sex assault charges

Last Updated Dec 31, 2015 12:08 AM EST

NORRISTOWN, Pa. -- Bill Cosby was charged Wednesday with drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his home 12 years ago - the first criminal charges brought against the comedian out of the torrent of allegations that destroyed his good-guy image as America's Dad.

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Bill Cosby's mug shot

The case sets the stage for perhaps the biggest Hollywood celebrity trial of the mobile-all-the-time era and could send the 78-year-old Cosby to prison in the twilight of his life and barrier-breaking career.

Cosby was charged with aggravated indecent assault, punishable by five to 10 years behind bars and a $25,000 fine.

Cosby made a brief appearance at a Pa. courtroom Wed. afternoon where bond was set at $1 million. He posted $100,000 and left within 10 minutes of arriving. He was scowling as he got out of the car and stumbled while being helped by his lawyers from the car. The next hearing in the case will be Jan. 14.

Prosecutors accused him of rendering former Temple University employee Andrea Constand unable to resist by plying her with pills and wine, then penetrating her digitally without her consent, when she was unconscious or unaware of what was happening.

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Andrea Constand, who accuses Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting her, walks in a park in Toronto, December 30, 2015.
REUTERS/Mark Blinch

She was "frozen, paralyzed, unable to move," Montgomery County District Attorney-elect Kevin Steele said in announcing the charges. He said it is unclear what type of pills Constand was given, but he noted that Cosby has admitted giving Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with.

Cosby acknowledged under oath a decade ago that he had sexual contact with Constand but said it was consensual. Calls to his attorneys were not immediately returned.

The charges came down just days before the 12-year statute of limitations for bringing charges was set to run out. The case represents an about-face by the district attorney's office, which under a previous DA declined to charge Cosby in 2005 when Constand first told police that the comic violated her by putting his hands down her pants at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham.

In November, Steele was elected district attorney in suburban Philadelphia, defeating Republican Bruce Castor, the ex-prosecutor who had declined in 2005 to bring charges against Cosby. Steele, after declaring victory, told supporters, "You made a choice to take it forward, to fight for victims, to fight for people who have been the subject of crimes."

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Bill Cosby arrives at Pa. courthouse for arraignment on sex assault charges, Dec. 30, 2015.
CBS News

Prosecutors reopened the case over the summer as damaging testimony was unsealed in Constand's related civil lawsuit against Cosby and as dozens of other women came forward with similar accusations that made a mockery of his image as the wise and understanding Dr. Cliff Huxtable from TV's "The Cosby Show."

At that point, "reopening this case was not a question. Rather, reopening this case was our duty as law enforcement officers," Steele said.

He urged any other alleged victims to come forward as well.

"The charge by the Montgomery County District Attorney's office came as no surprise, filed 12 years after the alleged incident and coming on the heels of a hotly contested election for this county's DA during which this case was made the focal point," Cosby's attorneys said in a statement after his court appearance. "Make no mistake, we intend to mount a vigorous defense against this unjustified charge and we expect that Mr. Cosby will be exonerated by a court of law."

Constand, who is now 42, lives in Toronto and works as a massage therapist. Her attorney, Dolores Troiani, welcomed the charges.

"She feels that they believe her, and to any victim, that is foremost in your mind: Are people going to believe me," Troiani said.

The case adds to the towering list of legal problems facing the TV star, including defamation and sexual-abuse lawsuits filed in Massachusetts, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania.

A key question if the case goes to trial is whether the judge will allow supporting testimony from other accusers to show similar "bad acts," even though it is too late to bring charges in most if not all of those instances. The judge could decide such testimony would be unfair.

Cosby in 1965 became the first black actor to land a leading role in a network drama, "I Spy," and he went on to earn three straight Emmys. Over the next three decades, the Philadelphia-born comic created TV's animated "Fat Albert" and the top-rated "Cosby Show," the 1980s sitcom celebrated as groundbreaking television for its depiction of a warm and loving family headed by two black professionals - one a lawyer, the other a doctor.

He was a fatherly figure off camera as well, serving as a public moralist and public scold, urging young people to pull up their saggy pants and start acting responsibly.

Constand, who worked for the women's basketball team at Temple, where Cosby was a trustee and proud alumnus, said she was assaulted after going to his home in January 2004 for some career advice.

Then-District Attorney Bruce Castor declined to charge Cosby, saying at the time that both the TV star and his accuser could be portrayed in "a less than flattering light." This year, Castor said the allegations in Constand's lawsuit were more serious than the account she gave police, and if that information had been known at the time, "we might have been able to make a case."

Castor tried to make a comeback as district attorney in the November election but lost.

After the criminal case went nowhere, Constand settled her lawsuit against Cosby in 2006 on confidential terms.

Her allegations and similar ones from other women in the years that followed did not receive wide attention but exploded into view in late 2014, first online, then in the wider media, after comedian Hannibal Buress mocked the moralizing Cosby as a hypocrite and called him a rapist during a standup routine.

That opened the floodgates on even more allegations.

Women mostly from the world of modeling, acting or other entertainment fields came forward and described being offered a drink by Cosby and waking up to find they had apparently been sexually assaulted. Cosby, through his representatives, accused some of the women of trying to extract money from him or get ahead in show business.

Earlier this year, The Associated Press persuaded a judge to unseal documents from the Constand lawsuit, and they showed the long-married Cosby acknowledging a string of affairs and sexual encounters.

Cosby, a longtime resident of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, testified that he obtained Quaaludes in the 1970s to give to women. He denied giving women drugs without their knowledge and said he had used the now-banned sedative "the same as a person would say, 'Have a drink.'"

In the deposition, Cosby said he fondled Constand that night, taking her silence as a green light. Constand maintains she was semi-conscious after he gave her pills he said would relax her.

"I don't hear her say anything. And I don't feel her say anything. And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped," Cosby testified.

He said Constand was not upset when she left that night. She went to police a year later.

Her lawyer has said Constand is gay and was dating a woman around the time she met Cosby in the early 2000s.

The AP generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they agree to have their names published, as Constand has done.

Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Cosby no longer enjoys the celebrity appeal that might sway a jury.

"His reputation has already been tarnished, so I doubt that jurors would be inclined to believe him just because of his prior image," she said in September. She said the judge in the case will have to decide whether to allow other accusers to testify or whether that would be too prejudicial.

Earlier this month, Cosby sued seven women who accused him of sexual assault. In July, 35 of the women who have accused Cosby of drugging or sexually assaulting them -- or both - detailed their stories to New York Magazine.