Bill Cosby was released from prison on Wednesday after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his 2018 conviction for sexual assault, a dramatic reversal in one of the first high-profile criminal trials of the #MeToo era.
The court’s decision seemed likely to end the Pennsylvania case, legal experts said, and while more than 50 women across the nation have accused Cosby of sexual assault and misconduct, statutes of limitations in their cases makes further prosecutions unlikely.
Cosby had served three years of a three- to 10-year sentence at a maximum-security prison outside Philadelphia when the court ruled that a "non-prosecution agreement" with a previous prosecutor meant that Cosby should not have been charged in the case.
Cosby (83) returned to his home in suburban Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon where, looking frail and walking slowly, he was helped inside by his lawyer and a spokesperson. He flashed a “V” sign as he reached his front door.
The court’s decision overturned the first major criminal conviction of the #MeToo era, which came soon after allegations of sexual assault had been made against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
The accusations and eventual conviction of Cosby stunned the nation, painting a disturbing portrait suggesting that a man who had brightened America’s living rooms as a beloved father figure had been a sexual predator.
The case against Cosby began with his arrest in 2015 on charges that he had drugged and sexually assaulted a woman at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs 11 years earlier. In April 2018, the jury convicted Cosby of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, to whom Cosby had been a mentor and who was at the time a Temple University employee.
Ms Constand had praised the guilty verdict at the time, saying, "Truth prevails," and the National Organization for Women called it "a notice to sexual predators everywhere." But Cosby's lawyers, who had said at the time that allegations against Weinstein would make it difficult for them to receive a fair trial, later suggested in an appeal that the outcome had been influenced by what they described as a period of "public panic."
In a statement issued with her lawyers, Ms Constand said on Wednesday that the court’s ruling was “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 or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action.”
In their 79-page opinion, the judges wrote that a previous prosecutor’s statement that Cosby would not face charges, which paved the way for Cosby to testify in a civil trial, meant that he should not have been charged in the case. It was a 6-1 ruling, with two of the judges in the majority dissenting on the remedy, which barred a retrial.
The case began in 2005, when Cosby was investigated in the case of Ms Constand, and a former district attorney of Montgomery County said that he had given Cosby his assurance that he would not be charged in the case. The former district attorney, Bruce Castor Jr, announced in a news release at the time that after an investigation he had found "insufficient" evidence. He later testified that he had given Cosby the assurance to encourage him to testify in a subsequent civil case brought by Ms Constand. (A civil suit she filed against Cosby was settled in 2006 for $3.38 million.)
In that testimony, Cosby acknowledged giving quaaludes to women he was pursuing for sex - evidence that played a key part in his trial after Mr Castor’s successors reopened the case and charged Cosby in December 2015. That was just days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired in the case, and it came amid a number of new allegations from women who brought similar accusations of drugging and sexual assault against Cosby.
“In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor DAs to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights,” the appeals ruling said.
Cosby posted a picture of himself, with a fist raised above his head and his eyes closed, on Twitter, writing: "I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence." Mr Castor, who this year served as a lawyer for President Donald Trump during his second impeachment trial, said after the ruling was delivered on Wednesday that he believed his decision in 2005 had been "exonerated" by the ruling, calling the verdict a "shellacking" for the current district attorney's office.
“I was right back in 2005 and I’m right in 2021,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m proud of our Supreme Court for having the courage to make an unpopular decision.”
Patricia Steuer (65), who accused Cosby of drugging and assaulting her in 1978 and 1980, said that she had been preparing herself for the possibility that Cosby's conviction would be overturned but that she was still "a little stunned" by the court's ruling on Wednesday.
"I'm wondering what the 43-year ordeal that I went through was supposed to be about," said Steuer, who said she found out about the decision on Facebook. But she said she was "consoled by the fact that I believe we did the only thing that we could, which is to come forward and tell the truth."
Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said: "We are deeply disappointed in today's ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and by the message this decision sends to the brave survivors who came forward to seek justice for what Bill Cosby did to them. This is not justice."
Others expressed support for Cosby. Phylicia Rashad, who appeared as Cosby's wife in The Cosby Show, praised the decision on Twitter. "FINALLY!!!!"
Rashad, who was recently named the dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, wrote on Twitter. “A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” (She later wrote: “I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth.”)
The decision undoes a verdict that several women who said that they had been assaulted and raped by Cosby had praised at the time as a measure of justice that had been a long time coming. In a victim impact statement filed with the court in 2018, Ms Constand had said of Cosby: “We may never know the full extent of his double life as a sexual predator, but his decadeslong reign of terror as a serial rapist is over.”
The reversal now leaves Cosby’s career and reputation in limbo. His conviction, after years of dodging accusations that he had preyed on women, had seemed to cap the downfall of one of the world’s best-known entertainers. Its overturning undid what many women had seen as an early success of the #MeToo movement, a ruling which had been praised at the time as a sign that the accounts of female accusers were being afforded greater weight and credibility. – The New York Times