By Tom Gliatto
August 11, 1997 12:00 PM

HOW COULD THEY? HOW COULD they?” 22-year-old Autumn Jackson cried out to her attorney moments after a jury in a Manhattan federal court found her guilty of trying to extort $40 million from Bill Cosby, the man she claims is her father. Neither Robert Baum, Jackson’s attorney, nor her mother, Shawn Upshaw, had a ready reply. “I see my child’s face down on the desk, sobbing uncontrollably, asking for me,” Upshaw, 44, told PEOPLE. “She sobbed, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. I don’t believe it.’ My baby did not think this would happen. She thought people would understand she wasn’t intending to blackmail or extort anything.”

She thought wrong. Not that the seven men and five women who sat in judgment of Jackson weren’t sympathetic. “My heart breaks for her,” juror Julie DeLeon, a lawyer, said at the July 25 conclusion of the 12-day trial. “When I saw her in the courtroom, I really couldn’t look at her. But…the law is the law.” Among the tapes, faxes and letters amassed by the prosecution, DeLeon cited as key a taped phone conversation between Cosby’s attorney Jack Schmitt and Jackson. Schmitt warned Jackson—who was escalating her threats to tell the media she was Cosby’s daughter unless the comedian met her price—that she was crossing into criminal behavior. Yet, DeLeon noted, Jackson “continued undeterred. Was she young? Yes. A little naive? Yes…but she knew what she was doing.”

Juror Maria Lino, a phone technician, said that neither Cosby’s July 15 testimony nor his renown played a part in her decision to convict and that she felt no differently about the 60-year-old star than before the trial. “Just because you’re a celebrity,” she said, “doesn’t make you perfect.” David Henkel, also a phone-company worker, said he believed Cosby when he said he wasn’t Jackson’s father. “He was very convincing,” said Henkel.

And if the jury did not buy the defense argument—that this was a destitute young woman who thought that demanding $40 million was a daughter’s prerogative—Jackson’s legal team still hopes that Cosby, who has admitted a one-night stand with Upshaw in the early ’70s, will plead for leniency when Jackson is sentenced on Oct. 22. (She faces up to 12 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.) “If Mr. Cosby is Autumn’s father, I can’t imagine that a father would feel good about sending his daughter to jail,” says Baum, who plans to appeal the verdict in part on grounds that the judge did not fully define extortion to the jury. Even if Cosby is not the girl’s father, as he insists, Wanda M. Akin, Upshaw’s attorney and agent, contends that “he personally was involved,” establishing trust funds for Jackson and Upshaw and maintaining contact with them for decades. “He shouldn’t want them to suffer.”

Or anyone to wonder. Last Monday, Schmitt revealed on CNBC’s Rivera Live that Cosby had just submitted to a DNA test to establish Autumn’s paternity. “He felt it was time to settle this once and for all,” Schmitt later told the Associated Press. “It’s time to end the nonsense.” But settling it requires Jackson to be tested also, and her attorney was sounding as if he’s in no hurry for her to do so. “The issue is whether the blood test will have any effect on sentencing,” Baum said after Cosby’s test became known. But, he added, “if we don’t agree [to a test] prior to sentencing, we will certainly agree to it after sentencing.”

For now, Jackson will stay with her grandmother Lois Maxfield in Clear-lake, Calif. “She wants to take a deep breath,” says Upshaw, who has different plans. She’s shopping around her story. “It’s not an I-slept-with-Cosby book,” says Akin. “It’s a sociological, spiritual analysis of how one moment in two people’s lives turns into a snowball.” A snowball that, for Autumn Jackson, turned into an avalanche.


SUE MILLER in New York City