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Home » Bill Cosby freed from prison after court overturns sex assault conviction

Bill Cosby freed from prison after court overturns sex assault conviction

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Bill Cosby was freed from prison Wednesday after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction, a stunning reversal in a case that marked the first celebrity trial in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

The 83-year-old comedian once known as “America’s Dad” served nearly three years of a three-to 10-year sentence after being found guilty of drugging and assaulting Temple University sports administrator Andrea Constand at his suburban Philadelphia home in 2004.

In their 79-page opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote that a “non-prosecution agreement” that had been struck between Cosby and former Montgomery County D.A. Bruce Castor meant that the actor never should have been changed in the case. The judges barred any future prosecution.

After learning about the allegations in 2005, Castor had concerns about the success of the case against Cosby absent a confession from the actor. He agreed at the time not to prosecute him so he would be forced to testify in a subsequent civil action without being able to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. There was no evidence that promise was ever put in writing.

Cosby made several incriminating statements during his depositions in the civil case that were later used in his criminal trial by Castor’s successor after dozens of women across the nation came forward to accuse the comedian of sexual assault.

“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 Wecht wrote in the majority opinion.

The court’s ruling overturned the first significant criminal conviction of the #MeToo era, and comes on the heels of a judge’s decision to extradite Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to stand trial in California on charges that he sexually assaulted five women in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

The Cosby and Weinstein trials 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 am furious to hear this news,” actor Amber Tamblyn, a founder of Time’s Up, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault, said in a Twitter post. “I personally know women who this man drugged and raped while unconscious. Shame on the court and this decision.”

In a statement, Dist. Atty. Kevin Steele said Cosby went free “on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime.” He commended Constand for coming forward and added: “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.”

John Manly, a Southern California attorney who has represented dozens of sexual assault survivors, said the court’s decision is “a huge step backward.” He fears this case will deter sexual assault survivors from coming forward.

“The Cosby decision yet again shows there two systems of justice, one for the rich and powerful and the other for the rest,” he said. “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 likely 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. “Bill Cosby was a serial predator who thought he could not be caught and these women showed the world by working together even those who believe they are untouchable can be brought to justice and that does not change with this decision.”

Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents more than two dozen women accused by Cosby, said the case was an important fight for justice.

Despite the court overturning the conviction on technical grounds “it did not vindicate Bill Cosby’s conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement of a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused,” she said.

As Cosby was set free from the state prison in suburban Montgomery County, his appeals lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, said the actor “should never have been prosecuted for these offenses.”

“District attorneys can’t change it up simply because of their political motivation,” she said, adding that Cosby remains in excellent health, apart from being legally blind.

Hours after his release, Cosby stood outside his Elkins Park home smiling as his attorneys walked him inside. The actor ignored reporters’ questions and flashed a peace sign.

While he has not yet made any public statements, his supporters have been vocal in their celebration of the court’s ruling.

“FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!’ the actor’s “Cosby Show” costar Phylicia Rashad tweeted.

The comedian is expected hold a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

“He is not released because he is innocent,” Lisa Bloom, an attorney who represented some of Cosby victims, said Wednesday. “He is released because a prosecutor promised him years ago that he would not be brought to justice, without even making a deal for him to do time.”

Four judges formed the majority that ruled in Cosby’s favor, while three dissented in whole or in part.

Peter Goldberger, a suburban Philadelphia lawyer with an expertise in criminal appeals, said prosecutors could ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for reconsideration, but it would be a very long shot.

“I can’t imagine that with such a lengthy opinion, with a thoughtful concurring opinion and a thoughtful dissenting opinion, that you could honestly say they made a simple mistake that would change their minds if they point it out to them,” Goldberger said.

Even though Cosby was charged only with the assault on Constand, the trial judge allowed five other accusers to testify that they, too, were similarly victimized by Cosby in the 1980s. Prosecutors called them as witnesses to establish what they said was a pattern of criminal behavior on Cosby’s part.

Cosby’s lawyers had argued on appeal that the use of the five additional accusers was improper.

The Pennsylvania high court did not weigh in on the question, saying it was moot given its finding that Cosby should not have been prosecuted in the first place.

In New York, the judge presiding over last year’s trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case had sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. He is now facing separate charges in California.

In May, Cosby was denied parole after refusing to participate in sex offender programs during his nearly three years in state prison. He has long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it meant serving the full 10-year sentence.

Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and “family man” persona to manipulate young women, holding himself out as a mentor before betraying them.

Cosby, a groundbreaking Black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made an estimated $400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry that included the TV shows “I Spy,” “The Cosby Show” and “Fat Albert,” along with comedy albums and a multitude of television commercials.

In the deposition that spelled Cosby’s downfall, the comedian said under oath that he used to offer quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with. Cosby eventually settled with Constand for $3.4 million.

Portions of the deposition later became public at the request of the Associated Press, opening the floodgates on accusations from other women, more than 60 of whom came forward to say Cosby violated them.

The Associated Press does not typically identify sexual assault victims without their permission, which Constand has granted.

Associated Press Reporter Maryclaire Dale contributed to this report

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