Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court overturned Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction on Wednesday after finding an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented him from being charged in the case.
The disgraced 83-year-old actor and comedian was sentenced to between three and 10 years in a Pennsylvania state prison after being convicted of sexual assault in 2018. He had been accused of drugging and assaulting Temple University sports administrator Andrea Constand at his home near Philadelphia in 2004.
Cosby served two years in prison, and had pledged to serve all 10 rather than show remorse over his actions towards Constand. He also refused to participate in the prison’s sex offender treatment program. Now that the case has been overturned, Cosby will be allowed to walk free immediately.
According to The Associated Press, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that District Attorney Kevin Steele, who made the decision to arrest Cosby in 2015, was obligated to stand by his predecessor’s promise not to charge Cosby if he testified in a civil suit brought by Constand.
Via Philip Bump of The Washington Post, during the civil suit Cosby believed he could not invoke the Fifth Amendment — which protects against self-incrimination — because he had been informed by then-District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. that he wouldn’t be prosecuted for an assault. Cosby’s deposition included incriminating testimony, and after the civil suit was unsealed, the new D.A. Steele used it to press charges in criminal court.
Castor remains a controversial figure. In addition to his decision not to prosecute Cosby, he drew national headlines when, after he lost his re-election bid to Steele, he sued Constand, blaming Cosby’s victim for his political defeat. He later joined former President Donald Trump’s legal team for the February 2021 impeachment trial.
In a split decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court argued that Steele was obligated to honor Castor’s promise. They said that overturning the conviction and barring further prosecution, “is the only remedy that comports with society’s reasonable expectations of its elected prosecutors and our criminal justice system.”
The court also expressed skepticism about the trial judge’s decision to allow other Cosby accusers to testify. While Constand’s case was the only one where the statute of limitations had not expired, five other alleged victims testified about their experiences with Cosby in the 1980s. A Pennsylvania law allows “prior bad acts” testimony only in limited instances, and while the PA Supreme Court did not rule on whether the women should have been allowed to speak at trial, they did worry that such testimony might cross the line into ad hominem attacks. This law is specific to Pennsylvania, and has not been relevant at other high-profile trials, such as that of Harvey Weinstein in New York.
It is not clear at this time if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling can or will be appealed. Altogether, over three dozen women have publicly accused Cosby of sexually inappropriate behavior or assault.
The decision has been almost universally condemned, with a few exceptions. Phylicia Rashad, who co-starred with Cosby on The Cosby Show and who is now the dean of the Howard University College of Fine Arts, tweeted, “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” Meanwhile, actress and activist Amber Tamblyn wrote, “I am furious to hear this news. I personally know women who this man drugged and raped while unconscious. Shame on the court and this decision.”
FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected! pic.twitter.com/NrGUdwr23c
— Phylicia Rashad (@PhyliciaRashad) June 30, 2021
Bill Cosby to Be Freed as Court Overturns His Sex Assault Conviction – The New York Times https://t.co/W34edMi1vw
— Amber Tamblyn (@ambertamblyn) June 30, 2021