PHILADELPHIA » Like a video clip on replay, it has become a recurring scene in Bill Cosby’s sexual-assault case: Gloria Allred, positioned before a bank of microphones and flanked by alleged Cosby victims.
As they tell tearful stories Allred leans in, places a comforting arm around their shoulders, and nods sympathetically.
But it’s never long before Allred unleashes a slashing challenge.
“We expect to take the deposition of Bill Cosby, not the friendly father figure of television’s Dr. Huxtable,” Allred said at one news conference. “We want the real Bill Cosby to show up. Mr. Cosby now has to deal with reality.”
With Cosby facing criminal sexual-assault charges in Montgomery County, Pa., Allred is positioned to play a pivotal role, should events break a certain way. The longtime feminist firebrand and Philadelphia native who delights in pillorying the rich and powerful is representing 29 women who say they, too, were assaulted by Cosby.
Some are offering to testify in the criminal trial.
For Allred, 74, it is familiar territory. In 1997, a client testified in the sexual-assault trial of sportscaster Marv Albert that, like the woman who filed the original criminal charge against Albert, she had been attacked.
Albert pleaded guilty the next day.
That case, and her current efforts for women who say they were assaulted by Cosby, bears the hallmarks of Allred’s signature technique. She is known as one of the nation’s most media-savvy lawyers and regularly appeals to public opinion on behalf of clients.
That is especially so when she sets her sights on politicians like former Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, whom she publicly excoriated for sexually harassing female staffers, or celebrities like Michael Jackson, whom she pursued for years with allegations of child molestation.
“While many oppose the use of the media in litigation, it’s a useful and important tool. She has elevated it to a high art,” said Bryn Mawr lawyer Mark Schwartz, who has followed Allred’s career.
Whether she will have a role in the Cosby case is unclear. Trial judges and appellate courts typically are wary of evidence of “prior bad acts,” and it is generally considered inadmissible. Courts make exceptions when the evidence shows specific or signature aspects of the alleged crime occurring on other occasions.
Allred is nothing if not tenacious.
In 1984, she sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles on behalf of a young woman, Rita Milla, who alleged that beginning in 1978, when she was 16, seven priests repeatedly had sexual intercourse with her.
She became pregnant, and one of the priests advised her to have an abortion. The day Allred filed the suit and held a news conference, all seven priests who had sex with the woman had disappeared, and the archdiocese would not say where they were.
Only after the paternity of one of the priests was established did the church give in and agree to a confidential settlement — 23 years after the lawsuit was filed.
“It was important to do that publicly,” Allred said of her media campaign. “We thought there was a potential risk and harm as to these priests.”
Allred grew up poor.
She was born Gloria Rachel Bloom on July 3, 1941, and was raised on a block of tiny, two-story brick row houses in Southwest Philadelphia.
She has kept close friends in the city who are fiercely loyal to her.
Fern Caplan, who met Allred on their first day at Girls High, said Allred gave no hint of how prominent she would become.
“She was very popular with her contemporaries and very popular with boys,” Caplan said. “She is a helper.”
Steve Utain, whose grandmother grew up with Allred, said Allred gave him valuable advice when he began considering the law. The Center City resident is now in business development at the Drinker Biddle & Reath firm.
“Gloria is a great person. She has this persona where you either like or you don’t like her. Once you get to know her, you discover that she is kindhearted and takes your issues to heart.”
Allred excelled academically and entered the University of Pennsylvania.
She met her first husband, Peyton Bray, at a mixer the first week. They married, and Allred became pregnant at 19. But the marriage soon began to unravel, and by Allred’s senior year, the couple was divorced. She moved back in with her parents and worked on finishing her studies at Penn.
There followed jobs as an assistant buyer at Gimbels (she was outraged to learn she was paid less than a male co-worker doing the same job) and a teacher in the Philadelphia public schools.
In 1966, after recruiters for the Los Angeles school system visited Philadelphia to try to lure teachers away, Allred decided to make a fresh start and move with her young daughter (the lawyer and TV analyst Lisa Bloom) to Los Angeles, where she enrolled in law school.
It was shortly after she arrived in L.A. that she had a life-changing experience. While on a vacation in Acapulco, Allred was raped by a Mexican physician who had asked her out to dinner.
“He pulled a gun and raped me,” Allred writes in her book, “Fight Back and Win,” which recaps dozens of civil rights cases Allred fought for clients who had been abused at work or in their private lives. “I didn’t tell authorities at the time because I didn’t think they would believe an American girl against a well-known and respected Mexican doctor.”
After returning from Mexico, she learned she was pregnant and decided on an abortion, then illegal, and almost died from hemorrhage and fever after the procedure.
The experience solidified her decision to become a lawyer and fight for victims’ rights.
“It is important to channel rage and anger into constructive action,” she said. “I can’t say I have no rage or anger, but I can say I do think women or victims should take whatever anger they feel (and— turn their anger outward by seeking justice in the courts or seeking change in the legislatures or Congress, which is what many of my clients are doing.”
©2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer