The astonishing Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday overturning Bill Cosby’s 2018 indecent assault conviction – the latest twist in a case that was the first to test the legal limits of the #MeToo era – sparked a quick outcry from sexual assault survivors and their advocates.
Lisa Bloom, a lawyer who represents three women who accused the married comedian of misconduct, made a sensitive point about what the court had decided, Tweeter that “he is not released because he is innocent. He is released because a prosecutor promised him years ago that he would not be brought to justice, without even having reached an agreement so that he would not be brought to justice. ‘the weather is good. “
This non-prosecution agreement, which was cited in the opinion of the divided majority of the seven-member tribunal, has been the cornerstone of the argument for Cosby’s release and has sparked scrutiny of how whose once famous artist, who has been behind bars for almost three years, could walk freely on what some call a technicality.
Legal experts say the judges’ decision to overturn the conviction was a possibility, although still seen as a long road for the defense, and exposed the risks for prosecutors in building their cases on the basis of earlier testimony that Cosby said he gave assurances that he could not be criminally charged.
“This has always been a decent question for the appeal,” said Danny Cevallos, NBC News legal analyst. “It’s not often that a prosecutor makes a far-fetched case for a defendant to testify in a civil case and in return, he won’t be prosecuted.”
Michelle Madden Dempsey, a former Illinois prosecutor and law professor at the University of Villanova, said the ruling should not be interpreted as supporting Cosby’s allegations of innocence.
The ruling was based on the fact that Cosby, 83, had waived his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by agreeing to testify in a previous civil case brought by his accuser, Andrea Constand, which according to claimants. judges, was proof that he did not think he would be indicted criminally.
The judges “thought it was a violation of his due process rights and fundamental fairness,” Dempsey said. “This is such an unusual case, and I hope people don’t read too much of the court ruling on what it says about the #MeToo movement. … And this ruling in no way undermines Andrea’s credibility. Constand and other victims who testified against “Cosby.
The former “Cosby Show” star was arrested in 2015 on sexual assault charges, as women brought allegations ranging from groping to sexual assault to rape in the broader context of the movement #MeToo which seeks to hold powerful men to account.
Constand, a former Temple University employee, said he drugged and raped her at her home in Cheltenham Township, near Philadelphia, in January 2004.
Cosby had previously sworn that he had consensual sexual contact with Constand, and he denied all other allegations of wrongdoing.
In 2006, Constand settled a civil lawsuit against Cosby on confidential terms, and it was for this case that Cosby gave potentially incriminating testimony and admitted to qualifying the women he was suing for sex.
Bruce Castor Jr., the former district attorney for Montgomery County, Pa., Said he made arrangements not to indict Cosby but to still make affidavits in the civil case because there was not enough evidence at the time to produce a criminal prosecution.
Castor’s successors, however, decided to file a lawsuit and barely met the January 2016 deadline to file them against Cosby before the 12-year limitation period expired.
While Cosby’s first trial in 2017 ended in failure, a jury at his retrial in 2018 found him guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault on Constand. He was sentenced to three to ten years in state prison.
Cosby’s fall as a beloved sitcom star made international headlines, and he remained defiant in prison, suggesting he had been trapped and the victim of a “political” vendetta.
Legal experts say the latest turn of events will only lead some to blame prosecutors: either on Castor – for making a deal with Cosby that he would not be charged, a deal that was never put in writing – or against his successors who used Cosby’s past testimony against him and whether they realized it or not would violate his due process rights.
Judge David Wecht wrote in the majority opinion that Cosby “must be released, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be prohibited,” meaning he can no longer be tried in this case, essentially blocking any appeal. for his accusers.
In a statement, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, the prosecutor who filed the criminal charge against Cosby, reiterated that Wednesday’s decision was not based on the facts the jury heard.
“I hope this decision does not hinder the reporting of sexual assault by victims,” Steele said. “We always believe that no one is above the law, including those who are rich, famous and powerful.”
While the judges aren’t suggesting excessive prosecution in the decision to bring Cosby to justice, someone ultimately dropped the ball, Dempsey said, and there will be a lot of debate about whether a deal with Cosby should have been concluded or if Castor should have obtained a written agreement to avoid future confusion.
Judge Kevin Dougherty’s dissent hints at problematic missteps along the way.
“If district attorneys had the power to issue irrevocable prison release cards at will and without judicial review, it would invite a multitude of abuses,” he wrote, adding that “one might reasonably wonder. if any such abuse was at work in this case, especially given Castor’s bizarre and ever-changing explanations for his actions. “
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said she believed the court decision was not just a technical matter, but was supported by legal grounds. Yet she does not blame prosecutors for trying to use all the evidence at their disposal and said that if their goal was to secure a conviction, they “had little choice but to try to ‘use [Cosby’s] statements of testimony. “
“The biggest problem was not believing that their victim’s testimony would be enough for a conviction,” Levenson said in an email. “It was a judgment. Today there might be a different ruling in other cases, especially if the courts become more open to allowing other victims to testify.”
Levenson said she didn’t think the ruling would have ramifications for other high-profile sexual assault cases because the situation was so unique and stemmed from the no-prosecution agreement Cosby and prosecutors reached. over 15 years ago.
On the contrary, she said, “I think this case makes it less likely that prosecutors will make such promises in the future.”