PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Pennsylvania’s highest court dismissed Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and released him from prison Wednesday in a startling reversal of fortune for the comedian once known as “America’s Father », Judging that the prosecutor who brought the case was bound by his agreement of the predecessor not to charge Cosby.
Cosby, 83, had served nearly three years of a three- to 10-year sentence after being convicted of drugging and raping Temple University sports administrator Andrea Constand at his suburban home of Philadelphia 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 prejudicial testimony in a lawsuit brought by Constand – laid charges against him days before. that the 12-year limitation period is about to run. outside.
But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said on Wednesday that District Attorney Kevin Steele, who made the decision to arrest Cosby, was obligated to keep his predecessor’s promise not to indict Cosby, although there was no no proof that the promise was ever put in writing.
Judge David Wecht, writing for a divided court, said Cosby relied on the previous prosecutor’s decision not to charge him when the comedian gave his potentially incriminating testimony in the Constand civil case.
The court called Cosby’s subsequent arrest “a fundamental breach of fairness, especially when it results in criminal charges that have been dropped for more than a decade.” He said justice and “fair play and decency” demand that the district attorney’s office respect the decision of the previous DA.
The judges said quashing the conviction and banning all further prosecution “is the only remedy that meets society’s reasonable expectations of its elected prosecutors and our criminal justice system.”
He was quickly released from state prison in suburban Montgomery County and returned home without any immediate comment.
His appeal lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, said Cosby should never have been prosecuted. “District attorneys cannot change this just because of their political motivation,” she said, adding that Cosby remains in excellent health, in addition to being legally blind.
In a statement, Steele said Cosby was released “on a procedural matter unrelated to the facts of the crime.” He congratulated Constand for coming forward and added, “I hope this decision does not prevent the reporting of sexual assaults by victims. … We always believe that no one is above the law, including those who are rich, famous and powerful.
Constand and his lawyer did not immediately return the messages seeking comment.
“FINALLY !!!! A terrible wrong is being righted – a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” Tweeted “Cosby Show” actor co-star Phylicia Rashad.
“I am furious to hear this news,” actress Amber Tamblyn, founder of Time’s Up, a sexual assault advocacy group, said in a Twitter post. “I personally know women that this man drugged and raped while they were unconscious. Shame on the court and on this decision.
In convicting Cosby, the trial judge had viewed him as a sexually violent predator who could not be allowed to go out safely in public and had to report to authorities for the rest of his life.
Four Supreme Court justices formed the majority that ruled in Cosby’s favor, while three others dissented in whole or in part.
Peter Goldberger, a suburban Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in criminal appeals, said prosecutors could ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for a new argument or reconsideration, but that would be a very long way.
“I can’t imagine that with such a long opinion, with a thoughtful concurring opinion and a thoughtful dissenting opinion, one could honestly say that they made a simple mistake that would make them change their minds if they did. notice, “Goldberger said. .
Although Cosby was only charged with assaulting Constand, the judge at his trial allowed five other accusers to testify that they too were similarly victimized by Cosby in the 1980s. called as witnesses to establish what they said was a role model on Cosby’s part.
Cosby’s lawyers argued on appeal that the use of the five additional accusers was inappropriate.
But the Pennsylvania high court did not weigh in on the matter, saying it was moot given the judges’ conclusion that Cosby should not have been sued in the first place.
In New York, the judge in last year’s trial of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case helped spark the #MeToo movement in 2017, has let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
In May, Cosby was denied parole after refusing to participate in sex offender programs behind bars. He said he would resist treatment programs and refuse to admit wrongdoing, even if it involved serving the full 10 years.
Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and father figure to manipulate young women, posing as a mentor before betraying them.
The revolutionary black actor grew up in social housing in Philadelphia and made a fortune estimated at $ 400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry, including the TV shows “I Spy”, “The Cosby Show. “and” Fat Albert “, as well as comedy albums and a host of television commercials.
The suburban Philadelphia district attorney who initially reviewed Constand’s allegations, Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor said the case was flawed as Constand waited a year to come forward and kept in touch with Cosby thereafter. Castor refused to sue and instead encouraged Constand to sue for damages.
When questioned under oath in connection with this lawsuit, Cosby said he used to offer quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with. He eventually settled with Constand for $ 3.4 million.
Parts of the deposition then became public at the behest of The Associated Press and marked Cosby’s downfall, opening the floodgates to accusations from other women and destroying the reputation and career of a good comic book guy. More than 60 women have come forward to say Cosby raped them.
The AP typically does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission, which Constand granted.
Cosby, in the deposition, admitted to qualifying a 19-year-old woman before having sex with her at a Las Vegas hotel in 1976. Cosby called the meeting consensual.
The woman, Thérèse Serignese, now 64, said the court ruling “takes my breath away” on Wednesday.
“I just think it’s a miscarriage of justice. It is about procedure. This is not about the truth of women, ”she said. She said she was comforted by the fact that Cosby served almost three years: “It’s as good as it gets in America” for victims of sex crimes, she said.
This story has been corrected to show that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not express an opinion on the use of additional accusers
Follow Maryclaire Dale on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale