Pennsylvania’s highest court threw out Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and released him from prison today in a stunning reversal of fortune for the comedian once known as “America’s Dad,” ruling that the prosecutor who brought the case was bound by his predecessor's agreement not to charge Cosby.
Cosby, 83, has served nearly three years of a three- to 10-year sentence after being found guilty of drugging and violating Temple University sports administrator Andrea Constand at his suburban Philadelphia home in 2004. He was the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era.
The former Cosby Show star was arrested in 2015, when a district attorney armed with newly unsealed evidence — the comic's damaging deposition in a lawsuit brought by Constand — brought charges against him days before the 12-year statute of limitations ran out.
But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that District Attorney Kevin Steele, who made the decision to arrest Cosby, was obligated to stand by his predecessor’s promise not to charge Cosby. There was no evidence that promise was ever put in writing.
Justice David Wecht, writing for a split court, said Cosby had relied on the former district attorney's decision not to charge him when the comedian gave his potentially incriminating testimony in Constand’s civil case.
The court called Cosby's arrest “an affront to fundamental fairness, particularly when it results in a criminal prosecution that was forgone for more than a decade.”
The justices said that overturning the conviction, and barring any further prosecution, “is the only remedy that comports with society’s reasonable expectations of its elected prosecutors and our criminal justice system.”
As Cosby was set free from the state prison in suburban Montgomery County, his appeals lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, said Cosby "should never have been prosecuted for these offences."
“District attorneys can’t change it up simply because of their political motivation.," she said, adding Cosby remains in excellent health, apart from being legally blind.
In a statement, Steele said Cosby went free “on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime.” He commended Constand for coming forward and added: "My hope is that this decision will not dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims. ... We still believe that no one is above the law — including those who are rich, famous and powerful.”
Constand and her lawyer did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
“FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” the actor’s Cosby Show co-star Phylicia Rashad tweeted.
“I am furious to hear this news,” actor Amber Tamblyn, a founder of Time’s Up, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault, said in a Twitter post. “I personally know women who this man drugged and raped while unconscious. Shame on the court and this decision.”
Four judges formed the majority that ruled in Cosby's favour, while three others dissented in whole or in part.
Peter Goldberger, a suburban Philadelphia lawyer with an expertise in criminal appeals, said prosecutors could ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for reargument or reconsideration, but it would be a very long shot.
“I can’t imagine that with such a lengthy opinion, with a thoughtful concurring opinion and a thoughtful dissenting opinion, that you could honestly say they made a simple mistake that would change their minds if they point it out to them,” Goldberger said.
Even though Cosby was charged only with the assault on Constand, the trial judge allowed five other accusers to testify that they, too, were similarly victimised by Cosby in the 1980s. Prosecutors called them as witnesses to establish what they said was a pattern of criminal behavior on Cosby's part.
Cosby's lawyers had argued on appeal that the use of the five additional accusers was improper.
The Pennsylvania high court did not weigh in on the question, saying it was moot given its finding that Cosby should not have been prosecuted in the first place.
In New York, the judge presiding over last year’s trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case had sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. He is now facing separate charges in California.
In May, Cosby was denied parole after refusing to participate in sex offender programs behind bars. He has long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it means serving the full 10-year sentence.
Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and “family man” persona to manipulate young women, holding himself out as a mentor before betraying them.
Cosby, a groundbreaking Black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at $400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry that included the TV shows I Spy, The Cosby Show and Fat Albert, along with comedy albums and a multitude of television commercials.
In the deposition that spelled Cosby's downfall, the comedian said under oath that he used to offer Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with. Cosby eventually settled with Constand for US$3.4 million.
Portions of the deposition later became public at the request of The Associated Press, opening the floodgates on accusations from other women, more than 60 of whom came forward to say Cosby violated them.
The AP does not typically identify sexual assault victims without their permission, which Constand has granted.