No Laughing Matter

AUTUMN JACKSON, THE 22-YEAR-OLD college dropout accused of squeezing Bill Cosby for $40 million, wept into her hands when the guilty verdict was read last Friday. ""How could they?'' she asked her lawyer, seemingly dazed by the jury's decision after three days of deliberations. After threatening to tell the tabloids that Cosby was her true father, Jackson and Jose Medina, a codefendant, now face up to 12 years in prison and as much as $750,000 in fines. Still mourning the murder of their only son, Cosby and his wife of 33 years, Camille, were said to be relieved. ""Camille's suffered greatly in the past few months, and not even this will ease her pain,'' a close friend told NEWSWEEK. ""But at least it's over.''

Publicly, the couple hailed the ""just verdict.'' But it was hard to believe there could be any winners in the sad and sordid Cosby case. Even jurors admitted that Jackson was a confused woman whose mother had convinced her that the famous comedian was her father. And though vindicated by the verdict, Cosby - often described as ""America's Dad'' - was forced to acknowledge that he'd had a fling with Jackson's mother in a Las Vegas hotel room in the 1970s and that he had paid her $100,000 not to talk about it. Nor did the evidence submitted resolve the real question: whether Jackson is in fact Cosby's daughter.

Cosby said he told Jackson early on that he was not her father but would serve as a ""father figure.'' He paid for her education (something he's done for other students, too). The jury watched a brief video of Cosby laughing with Jackson during their first meeting in 1991. But last January, Jackson apparently stopped laughing. Instead, she and the 51-year-old Medina hatched a scheme to pressure Cosby. ""She wasn't asking for hugs or kisses or love,'' one prosecutor said. ""She was asking for cold, hard cash.''

Among the evidence the jury examined closely was a note in which Jackson told Cosby, ""Now here's the deal: Either I go to the tabloids and/or CBS or we settle now.'' In fact, Jackson took her story to the Globe tabloid days before Cosby's son, Ennis, was killed in Los Angeles. Cosby's lawyer went to the Feds. Perhaps because of Cosby's fame - and the guaranteed headlines - prosecutors bore down hard.

Jurors sounded stern but sympathetic toward Jackson. ""We really feel very bad for Autumn,'' said one. Meanwhile, Jackson's lawyer threatened Cosby with a paternity suit - and then said his client was hoping that Cosby would come forward and ask the judge to keep her out of jail. It seems the test of wills between Bill Cosby and the woman who claims to be his daughter may not yet be over.