The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned Bill Cosby’s 2018 sexual assault conviction, a dramatic development that saw his immediate release from prison and upended the first conviction of high-profile celebrities in the #MeToo era.
The divided court made no finding on the sufficiency of evidence against the 83-year-old comedian.
Instead, he based his decision on a question that had plagued the case from the start: whether the decade-old promise from a previous prosecutor that Cosby would never be accused of drugging and assaulting the accuser Andrea Constand barred the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office from filing a complaint in 2015.
Judge David N. Wecht, writing for the majority, found this to be the case, citing Cosby’s reliance on that vow when he agreed to testify against the prosecution in a civil case that Constand brought against him – testimony which the judges said was later abused against the comedian in his criminal trial.
“It was… unconstitutional coercive bait,” Wecht wrote, noting that such a “broad” violation of due process required an equally drastic remedy.
In the end, he banned prosecutors from retrying Cosby on Constand’s charges – a move that drew dissent from three members of the court.
READ MORE: Read Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion in Bill Cosby Trial
Yet within hours Cosby had left Collegeville State Prison, where he had already served over two years of his three to ten year sentence and returned to his Elkins Park estate. And a case that had been hailed as a landmark achievement to hold celebrities accountable for past sexual misconduct had crumbled to dust.
After returning to his Elkins Park home, the comedian finally emerged to greet the supporters gathered outside the gates. Leaning on one of his lawyers for support, and wearing a Central High “Class of 256” t-shirt and velor shoes with dogs embroidered on them, he displayed a V sign for the victory, but refused to address the crowd.
When a reporter asked Cosby how he was feeling, his lawyer Jennifer Bonjean intervened: “He says his heart is beating very fast.”
He later tweeted to thank his fans, the court and those who supported him.
“I never changed my position or my story,” he said. “I have always maintained my innocence.
District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, who won his post in 2015 in part by promising to bring Cosby to justice, was quick to point out that the High Court had not overturned Cosby’s conviction on the basis of his innocence, but rather what he described as “a matter of procedure.” unrelated to the facts of the crime.
In a statement, Steele praised Constand and the dozens of other women who have come forward to accuse the comedian of similar assaults for “remaining steadfast throughout this long ordeal.” His office did not say whether he intended to ask the court for a rehearing of the decision.
For his part, Constand in a joint statement with his lawyers called the court’s decision a “disappointment”.
“This may discourage those seeking justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the abuser or may force a victim to choose between bringing a criminal or civil action,” she said. .
When Constand, then a Temple University athletic administrator, first reported her alleged assault, then prosecutor Bruce L. Castor Jr. said he doubted his allegations would stand in court. and refused to file a complaint.
But in doing so, Castor would say years later, he struck a deal with Cosby that he said could instead help Constand get justice in civil court.
He vowed that Cosby would never be prosecuted on the basis of Constand’s charges and, in return, asked Cosby to agree to sit for a deposition in the civil case without exercising his Fifth Amendment rights against the self- incrimination.
Although no evidence has been presented that this deal was ever formalized, Cosby’s lawyers immediately objected when Castor’s successor, former District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, indicted Cosby 10 years over. late based on new evidence, just days before the 12-year statute of limitations for the crime. out of print.
Testifying for Cosby’s defense at a controversial 2016 preliminary hearing, Castor claimed that a loosely worded press release he issued at the time of his decision not to proceed was legally binding on all. the prosecutors who succeeded him.
The Montgomery County judge who presided over Cosby’s trials ultimately found that there was no evidence beyond Castor’s word to support the deal ever existed. And Castor, the judge ruled, was not a credible witness.
In the Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday, many justices agreed that Castor’s legal reasoning was questionable, but ultimately concluded that what mattered was what Cosby and his lawyers in 2005 reasonably believed to be true at the time.
“When a prosecutor makes an unconditional promise not to prosecute, and when the accused relies on that guarantee to the detriment of his constitutional right not to testify … our criminal justice system demands that the promise be fulfilled,” he said. writes Wecht.
Excerpts from Cosby’s testimony in Constand’s civil lawsuit – in which he discussed the use of quaaludes in sexual affairs with other women – were ultimately used against Cosby in the trial. But the damage went far beyond that, Wecht wrote, prompting the majority to decide to ban a new trial.
Justices Kevin R. Dougherty and Baer, while agreeing to quash the conviction, opposed the drastic remedy, saying they would have allowed a new trial without the incriminating testimony and that the alleged agreement of Castor shouldn’t spare Cosby from prosecution forever.
“If district attorneys had the power to issue free, irrevocable prison release cards at will and without judicial review, it would invite a multitude of abuses,” Dougherty wrote, adding in a footnote that ” one might reasonably wonder if such abuse was at work in this case, especially given Castor’s bizarre and ever-changing explanations for his actions.
Castor, in an interview on Wednesday, said he felt justified by the court ruling but remained indifferent to Cosby’s release.
“I don’t regret that he came out,” he said. “And I don’t feel any satisfaction that he came out.”
The majority of the court did not address the other central issue at the heart of Cosby’s appeal: whether the testimony of five other prosecutors accusing Cosby called as witnesses to bolster Constand’s story had unduly tainted the jury against him. .
In his dissent, Justice Thomas G. Saylor said he would have quashed the case for these reasons.
But one of those women, Janice Baker-Kinney – who alleged Cosby assaulted her in Reno in the 1980s – said on Wednesday that while stunned by the decision, she and Cosby’s other accusers remain proud. of the role they played in the affair.
“We still have a great support system,” she said. “And we’ll go through it the same way we did when we first revealed our truths.”
Cosby, meanwhile, was continuing his lap of honor. At dusk, he phoned the Philadelphia R&B radio station WDAS.
“It is for all the people who have been wrongly imprisoned without distinction of race, color or creed, because I met them there,” he said, before stepping back abruptly, adding : “My wife is waiting for me.”
Editors Anna Orso and Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.
Read the majority opinion:
This is a developing story and will be updated.