Pennsylvania's Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned Bill Cosby's sexual assault conviction after finding that his agreement with a previous prosecutor should have prevented charges from ever being filed.
After a jury was unable to reach a verdict in his first trial in 2017, Cosby, now 83, was convicted the following year of drugging and raping Temple University employee Andrea Constand at his Pennsylvania home in 2004.
His conviction marked a staggering fall from grace for a comedian who built his reputation as "America's Dad" over decades on television. His conviction was a key moment in the #MeToo movement, seen as accountability for a major celebrity accused of abusing his power.
The jury of seven men and five women voted after about 14 hours of deliberation to convict the then 80-year-old comedian on three counts of sexual assault, and he had since been serving his sentence of three to 10 years at a state prison near Philadelphia. He was released hours after the high court's decision on Wednesday.
“I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence,” Cosby wrote on Twitter. “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.”
The entire criminal case was initiated after Cosby's self-incriminating statements in a deposition for Constand's civil lawsuit were unsealed. In that civil case, Cosby submitted the statements after then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor agreed not to file charges.
That changed after the documents were unsealed and public outrage mounted. Castor's successor decided to press forward with criminal charges, arguing the case could be bolstered with testimony from other alleged victims over the years to show a pattern of predatory behavior.
But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that was unfair to Cosby, given that Castor said he had “absolutely” intended to remove “for all time” the possibility of prosecution because “the ability to take the Fifth Amendment is also for all time removed" in the civil case.
"We hold that, 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," the court wrote.
The judges added: “While the prosecutor’s discretion in charging decisions is undoubtedly vast, it is not exempt from basic principles of fundamental fairness, nor can it be wielded in a manner that violates a defendant’s rights. The foregoing precedents make clear that, at a minimum, when a defendant relies to his or her detriment upon the acts of a prosecutor, his or her due process rights are implicated.”
In this case, the court found that Castor had "effectively forced Cosby to participate against himself in a civil case in a way that Cosby would not have been required to do had he retained his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination."
Constand alleged Cosby drugged her at his home and raped her in 2004, but no criminal charges were brought at the time. But in Cosby’s transcript for the civil deposition, he admitted to giving women quaaludes, a powerful sedative, as a prelude to sex.
Those statements "significantly weakened Cosby’s legal position," and the actor was compelled to give "inculpatory evidence" that led to a multimillion-dollar settlement, which was what Castor — fearing a lack of evidence for a strong criminal trial — had intended, the justices added.
Cosby's attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, told BuzzFeed News that "at the end of the day, there has to be a fair process, prosecutors have to live up to their word."
"There was a deal made on which he relied — that is that he would not be prosecuted in exchange for going through the civil process, which he did. He lived up to his end of the bargain, and then a new prosecutor came in and pulled out the rug from underneath him, motivated largely by politics. And then not only did they renege on their deal not prosecute, they used his words against him and that is just a complete affront to the Fifth Amendment, and every principle of fairness and due process that we know of," she said. "The lower courts got swept up in the emotion of this issue and I was happy to see the Pennsylvania Supreme Court remain impervious to that."
The justices also argued that providing Cosby with a new criminal trial without his deposition wouldn’t be a sufficient remedy.
“There is only one remedy that can completely restore Cosby to the status quo ante. He must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred," the court wrote. "We do not dispute that this remedy is both severe and rare. But it is warranted here, indeed compelled.”
In a statement, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said Cosby "now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime."
"I want to commend Cosby’s victim Andrea Constand for her bravery in coming forward and remaining steadfast throughout this long ordeal, as well as all of the other women who have shared similar experiences," Steele said. "My hope is that this decision will not dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims. Prosecutors in my office will continue to follow the evidence wherever and to whomever it leads. We still believe that no one is above the law — including those who are rich, famous and powerful."
Cosby's team had also argued that allowing prosecutors to call five additional women to the stand to relay their own allegations of sexual misconduct against the actor tainted the jury's perception — a move the justices expressed concern with in terms of testimony becoming a character attack.
Four of the five women who testified, including model Janice Dickinson, said that they too were drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby.
More than 60 women have accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them over the span of decades, but Constand’s allegation was the only criminal case to be brought, in large part because most of the accusations were too old to prosecute.
Reaction to his conviction being overturned was swift on social media. Amber Tamblyn, a founder of Time’s Up, the advocacy group for victims of sexual assault, tweeted, “I personally know women who this man drugged and raped while unconscious. Shame on the court and this decision.” On the other hand, his longtime costar, Phylicia Rashad, tweeted: "FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!"
Throughout his criminal proceedings, Cosby insisted that what happened between him and Constand was consensual, and in a prison interview with Black Press USA, he refused to express remorse.
“When I come up for parole, they’re not going to hear me say that I have remorse. I was there," he said. "I don’t care what group of people come along and talk about this when they weren’t there. They don’t know."
In a statement, Constand and her attorneys called the court's decision "disappointing," saying that it may discourage sexual assault victims from pursuing justice. They stressed that they were not consulted or made aware of any discussions about immunity from criminal prosecution "let alone signatories to any agreement of any kind."
"Once again, we remain grateful to those women who came forward to tell their stories, to DA Kevin Steele and the excellent prosecutors who achieve[d] conviction at trial, despite the ultimate outcome which resulted from a procedural technicality, and we urge all victims to have their voices heard," the statement said.
Attorney Gloria Allred, who represented more than 30 of Cosby's accusers, said she still believed "that this was a very important fight for justice."
"Even though the court did overturn the conviction, it was on technical grounds," Allred said during a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon. "It did not vindicate Bill Cosby’s conduct and it should not be interpreted as a statement ... that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused."
Melissa Segura contributed reporting to this story.