"If you had a really gutsy prosecutor, you could go after him," a University of Illinois College of Law professor tells PEOPLE

By Patrick Gomez
November 28, 2014 01:00 PM
Dan Herrick/Zuma

Many of the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby are decades old. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the 77-year-old comedy legend is out of the woods when it comes to prosecution.

A growing number of women have come forward about incidents involving Cosby that date back to the 1960s. His attorney Martin Singer has called the accusations “unsubstantiated and fantastical,” but the TV icon could – at least theoretically – face criminal charges in the state of New York, where some of the events allegedly occurred.

“There are no statute of limitations in New York when it comes to first-degree rape,” University of Illinois College of Law professor Robin Wilson tells PEOPLE. “You could be 100 and they could still come after you.”

That’s not the case in California or Pennsylvania, the other states cited in accusations against Cosby. In those jurisdictions, the statute of limitations is 10 years.

In a statement, Singer decried accusers who “have come forward in the past two weeks with unsubstantiated, fantastical stories about things they say occurred 30, 40, or even 50 years ago.” But time and a lack of physical evidence aren’t necessarily insurmountable obstacles in New York, says Wilson.

“Even if the ladies had come forward the next day, they wouldn’t [necessarily] have any better physical evidence than they do right now,” explains Wilson, who says that some drugs used in cases of date rape “wash out of your system and leave no trace.” A highly motivated prosecutor could decide that taking Cosby to court was still worth it – despite the high hurdles.

PHOTOS: The Evolution of the Bill Cosby Scandal

Still, that’s hardly the same as making your case stick – particularly after so many years. “The prosecutor would have ask themselves, ‘Am I really going to be able to show that this lady was physically helpless and could not consent [to having sex?]’ ” the law professor says of what is required to prosecute a first-degree rape charge. Potential lesser charges against Cosby have statutes of limitation that expired long ago.

Then there’s the fact that the star can afford the best legal firepower that money can buy. “Mr. Cosby is going to have a terrific lawyer,” says Wilson. “If a prosecutor sits down with him and the only thing they have is an isolated women saying ‘this happened’ and she’s not a terribly good witness, they might say it’s not worth it to prosecute.”

What if the women had thoroughly reported the incidents at the time? The court battle would still likely have been long and costly. “Even if [the alleged victims] had asked for a rape kit,” says Wilson. “It could still turn into the classic he-said, she-said situation.”

In other words, not much different than the situation faced by Cosby and his accusers today. The star, who settled a civil lawsuit related to the allegations in 2006, seems determined to ride the scandal out.

“I know people are tired of me not saying anything,” Cosby told Florida Today on Nov. 21. “But a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos.”

For much more about the Bill Cosby scandal, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

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