Bill Cosby freed from prison after court overturns sex assault conviction
Bill Cosby was released from prison after the Pennsylvania high court ruled the sex assault case against him violated an earlier deal with prosecutors.
Bill Cosby was freed from prison Wednesday after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction, a stunning turnaround in a case that had marked the first high-profile celebrity trial of the #MeToo movement.
At the heart of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to release the 83-year-old is a “non-prosecution” agreement Cosby made with a former Montgomery County district attorney after a woman came forward with allegations that he had drugged and assaulted her at his suburban Philadelphia home in 2004.
In its 79-page opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote that the agreement should have barred the entertainer from facing any charges in the case. The court’s decision precludes any future prosecution.
Bill Cosby was released from prison after Pennsylvania high court ruled the sex assault case against him violated an earlier deal with prosecutors.
Legal experts quickly pointed out the singularity of the agreement, but there was immediate concern that the case could have a chilling effect for survivors of sexual assault, dampening the accountability achieved through the #MeToo movement.
“At the end of the day, rulings like this mean survivors of sexual abuse will be less willing to step forward, afraid that the legal system is stacked against them,” said Elizabeth Fegan, an attorney representing women in a civil case against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
The court’s ruling overturned the first significant criminal conviction of the #MeToo era. It also came on the heels of a judge’s decision to extradite Weinstein to stand trial in California on charges that he sexually assaulted five women in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. He has already been convicted and is serving time in a separate case in New York.
The trials of both celebrities fueled a national conversation about sexual misconduct perpetuated by wealthy, powerful men. The reversal of Cosby’s conviction has sparked outrage among his accusers and leaders of the #MeToo movement.
“I don’t want to hear anything about how cancel culture ruined men’s lives during the MeToo era reckoning for women and survivors. How we went too far,” tweeted Amber Tamblyn, an actress and founding member of Time’s Up, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault. “Today’s news that Cosby’s conviction is being overturned is proof we haven’t gone far enough. Our justice system MUST change.”
Hours after his release, Cosby stood outside his Elkins Park home smiling as his attorneys walked him inside. The actor ignored reporters’ questions and instead flashed them a peace sign.
He later released a statement saying he had done nothing wrong. Cosby was denied parole in May after refusing to participate in sex offender programs during his nearly three years in state prison.
He had long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it meant serving his full 10-year sentence.
“I have never changed my stance nor my story,” he wrote. “I have always maintained my innocence. Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal. Special thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for upholding the rule of law.”
Authorities began investigating Cosby in 2005 after Temple University employee Andrea Constand, to whom he had been a mentor, reported that he had assaulted her at his home after giving her pills that rendered her unconscious.
Former Montgomery County Dist. Atty. Bruce Castor, who is best known for defending former President Trump during his second impeachment trial in February, had concerns at the time about the success of the case against Cosby absent a confession from the actor. Castor agreed not to prosecute him so that he wouldn’t be able to invoke his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in subsequent civil action brought by Constand.
There was no evidence the immunity promise was ever put in writing, according to court records.
Cosby made several incriminating statements during his depositions in the civil case, including his acknowledgment that he gave Quaalude to women he was pursuing sexually. Those statements were later used in his criminal trial by Castor’s successor.
Cosby settled with Constand for $3.4 million. He was criminally charged just days before the 12-year statute of limitation expired and amid a wave of new sexual assault accusations from women across the nation.
“When a prosecutor makes an unconditional promise of non-prosecution, and when the defendant relies upon that guarantee to the detriment of his constitutional right not to testify, the principle of fundamental fairness that undergirds due process of law in our criminal justice system demands that the promise be enforced,” Justice David N. Wecht wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
Cosby was convicted of assaulting Constand in 2018 and was sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison. His conviction was a symbolic win for other women who had come forward saying they had also been victimized by the actor.
“Today’s majority decision regarding Bill Cosby is not only disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant,” Constand wrote in a statement.
Leaders of Time’s Up called the ruling “a travesty and an injustice.” The National Organization for Women railed against Cosby’s release, saying that the judicial system in the U.S. had “failed survivors again.”
In a statement, Montgomery County Dist. Atty. Kevin Steele said Cosby went free “on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime.”
“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,” he said.
But John Manly, a Southern California attorney who has represented dozens of sexual assault survivors, said the court’s decision may have done just that.
“This is a huge step backward,” he said. “The Cosby decision yet again shows there are two systems of justice, one for the rich and powerful and the other for the rest. The message sadly here is we cannot keep the powerful in prison.”
Despite the potential chilling effect, legal experts say the court’s decision was based on an uncommon technicality and probably won’t have wider legal implications.
“While this decision is emotionally devastating, it does not negate that these women came together and held accountable a very important and powerful man and showed others what could be achieved,” said Jane Manning, a former New York sex-crimes prosecutor and director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project.
Phylicia Rashad, Cosby’s costar in two sitcoms, including the breakthrough NBC comedy “The Cosby Show,” tweeted her support for the actor: “FINALLY!!! A terrible wrong is being righted. A miscarriage of justice is corrected.” After facing backlash on social media, she said that she fully supported victims of sexual assault and had not intended to seem as if she was “insensitive to their truth.”
Before the scandal, Cosby was one of the entertainment world’s most beloved and popular performers. He was a groundbreaking and iconic Black artist, breaking barriers and becoming a mainstream success as a comedian, actor, author, commercial pitchman and scholar.
In the 1960s, “I Spy” positioned him as one of the first Black Americans to star in a television drama. NBC’s family sitcom “The Cosby Show,” which premiered in 1984, revolutionized network TV and solidified Cosby’s unofficial status as “America’s dad.” But allegations of sexual assault cast a shadow on Cosby’s upstanding, fatherly reputation even before the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017.
Despite the fall from grace, Cosby maintained that his plan was always to return to performing and entertaining America.
Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents more than two dozen women who have accused Cosby of abuse, said that despite the court’s decision, the case was an important fight for justice.
Allred also represents Judy Huth, who alleges that Cosby assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion in 1974 when she was 15. Huth has filed a civil lawsuit against the entertainer that is pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
“We are not going to be deterred,” Allred said. “It is always two steps forward and one step back in the women’s movement.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.