By Maryclaire Dale,
Pennsylvania’s highest court threw out Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and released him from prison Wednesday in a stunning reversal of fortune for the comedian once known as “America’s Dad,’’ ruling that the prosecutor who brought the case was bound by his predecessor’s agreement not to charge Cosby.
Cosby, 83, flashed the V-for-victory sign to a helicopter overhead as he trudged into his suburban Philadelphia home after serving nearly three years of a three- to 10-year sentence for drugging and violating Temple University sports administrator Andrea Constand in 2004.
The former “Cosby Show’’ star – the first celebrity tried and convicted in the (hash)MeToo era – had no immediate comment.
Cosby was arrested in 2015, when a district attorney armed with newly unsealed evidence – the comic’s damaging deposition in a lawsuit brought by Constand – filed charges against him just days before the 12-year statute of limitations was about to run out.
But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Wednesday that District Attorney Kevin Steele, who made the decision to arrest Cosby, was obligated to stand by his predecessor’s promise not to charge Cosby, though there was no evidence that agreement was ever put in writing.
Justice David Wecht, writing for a split court, said Cosby had relied on the previous district attorney’s decision not to charge him when the comedian gave his potentially incriminating testimony in Constand’s civil case.
The court called Cosby’s subsequent arrest “an affront to fundamental fairness, particularly when it results in a criminal prosecution that was forgone for more than a decade.’’ It said justice and “fair play and decency’’ require that the district attorney’s office stand by the decision of the previous DA.
The justices said that overturning the conviction and barring any further prosecution “is the only remedy that comports with society’s reasonable expectations of its elected prosecutors and our criminal justice system.’’
As Cosby was promptly set free from the state prison in suburban Montgomery County and driven home, his appeals lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, said he should never have been charged.
“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.
In a statement, 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.’’
Constand and her lawyer did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
“FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted – a miscarriage of justice is corrected,’’ the actor’s “Cosby Show’’ co-star Phylicia Rashad tweeted.
“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 on Twitter. “I personally know women who this man drugged and raped while unconscious. Shame on the court and this decision.’’
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 with an expertise in criminal appeals, said prosecutors could ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for reargument or 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 judge at his trial allowed five other accusers to testify that they, too, who were similarly victimized by Cosby in the 1980s. Prosecutors called them as witnesses to establish what they said was a pattern of behavior on Cosby’s part.
Cosby’s lawyers had argued on appeal that the use of the five additional accusers was improper. But the Pennsylvania high court did not weigh in on the question, saying it was moot, given the finding that Cosby should not have been prosecuted in the first place.
In New York, the judge at last year’s trial of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case helped sparke the (hash)MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
In sentencing Cosby, the trial judge had ruled him a sexually violent predator who could not be safely allowed out in public and needed to report to authorities for the rest of his life.
In May, Cosby was denied parole after refusing to participate in sex offender programs behind bars. He said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it meant serving the full 10 years.
The groundbreaking black actor grew up in public housing in Philadelphia and made a fortune estimated at $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.