In a stunning judicial reversal, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction has been overturned by the Pennsylvania supreme court. Pennsylania’s highest court ruled Wednesday that Cosby’s agreement with former prosecutor Bruce Castor in 2005 should have prevented him from being charged again.
“The collective weight of these considerations led D.A. Castor to conclude that, unless Cosby confessed, there was insufficient credible and admissible evidence upon which any charge against Mr. Cosby related to the Constand incident could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,'” according to the decision.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Cosby was released on Wednesday afternoon, hours after the court’s decision.
Cosby was charged in 2015, convicted in 2018 — and was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for raping Andrea Constand at his Philadelphia home in 2004. He had been arrested just days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired on newly unsealed evidence. At his first trial in 2017, a judge at first allowed only one other accuser to testify, and the jury was not able to reach a verdict.
However, five other accusers were allowed to testify about similar allegations to Constand’s at the 2018 retrial, which resulted in Cosby’s conviction on April 26, 2018. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, however, that the testimony at the trial was tainted, even though a lower court found that he demonstrated a pattern of drugging and molesting women.
The justices were concerned about the increasing trend of testimonies turning into character attacks, as the law only allows testimony in limited cases, including to show a crime pattern that is so specific it serves to identify the perpetrator.
Dolores Troiani, who has been Constand’s lawyer for years, responded to a request for comment from Variety, and issued a statement from Constand, Troiani and co-counsel Bebe Kivitz:
“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 or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action.
“On the one hand, the Court acknowledged that the former District Attorney’s decision not to prosecute Mr. Cosby was not a formal immunity agreement and constituted at best a unilateral exercise of prosecutorial discretion not to prosecute at the time, but nevertheless precluded a future prosecution, which included additional evidence developed in the civil case. The Supreme Court acknowledged that it was bound by the lower court’s credibility findings, including that Andrea Constand and her civil counsel, Dolores Troiani and Bebe Kivitz, were not privy to any discussions between the former prosecutor and Mr. Cosby or his then criminal counsel, let alone signatories to any agreement of any kind. We were not consulted or asked our thoughts by Mr. Castor concerning any agreements concerning immunity or anything, and we were not made aware if there were any such discussions. The press release had no meaning or significance to us in 2005 other than being a press release circulated by the then District Attorney.
“Once again, we remain grateful to those women who came forward to tell their stories, to DA Kevin Steele and the excellent prosecutors who achieved a conviction at trial, despite the ultimate outcome which resulted from a procedural technicality, and we urge all victims to have their voices heard. We do not intend to make any further comment.”
Before his release Wednesday, Cosby served nearly three years of his sentence at a state prison near Philadelphia.
Cosby, 83, a Philadelphia native, previously settled a lawsuit with Constand, a Temple University employee, in 2006 — a sum that was later revealed to be nearly $3.4 million. The settlement came back to haunt him throughout 2014 as dozens of women — some of whom had accused him for years, others of whom were new, such as Janice Dickinson — came forward with allegations of Cosby drugging and raping them.
As the accusations mounted — eventually, there were more than 60 of them — Cosby’s career ended. Earlier in 2014, he had been set to do a Netflix special and was developing a comedy with NBC. That October, a stand-up routine by Hannibal Buress in which he called Cosby a rapist, which he had been doing for months, went viral. Soon after that, the floodgates opened, and in November, Netflix scrapped the special and NBC killed the show.
Constand first went to police in 2005 after the incident. But Castor — who would later be one of President Donald Trump’s lawyers during his second impeachment trial — decided not to charge the famous comedian. However, in 2015, Kevin Steele, the new district attorney of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, had openly criticized how the original case had been handled when he ran for D.A. After he won, Steele kept his word. Cosby was arrested on Dec. 30, 2015, right before the statute of limitations in Constand’s case expired. Because of the time limitations on sexual assault cases, the Constand accusation was the only prosecutable allegations. The earliest public accusations against Cosby date back to the mid-’60s.
In a deposition he gave in Constand’s civil lawsuit, Cosby admitted to giving women Benadryl and quaaludes. “I give her quaaludes. We then have sex,” Cosby said in 2005. The deposition — which was released in 2015 after the Associated Press sued to unseal it — was later used against him at trial, which contributed to the court overruling the verdict.
On Wednesday, Steele, the prosecutor, issued a statement.
“The majority decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court orders the release of William H. Cosby Jr. from state prison. He was found guilty by a jury and 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. 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.”
Model Janice Dickinson, who alleged that Cosby drugged and raped her in 2014, reacted to his release in an exclusive intervie with Entertainment Tonight.
“This morning when I got up and rolled out of bed, my friend, Stephen Lenehan, gave me a telephone call and he told me, he said, ‘I have some bad news,'” Dickinson told ET. “And I was bracing for a hurricane or something, and he was like, ‘Cosby is out of prison.’…First of all, [I felt] so angry. So angry. Second, I felt like I was kicked in the stomach, in my abdomen, by some psychic blow.”
Cosby’s 2018 conviction was taken as a victory for the #MeToo movement, that the victim-blaming of Cosby’s defense had failed, and that the five other accusers who’d been allowed to testify had helped bring the guilty verdict to bear.
News of his release prompted a flood of public outrage given the weight of the allegations and Cosby’s long history of facing such accusations. The legal maneuvering around Cosby is raising new questions about whether it will have a chilling effect on sexual assault victims coming forward, particularly when the case involves a high-profile figure.
Time’s Up, the organization founded in early 2018 in the wake of the #MeToo revival, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon from Tina Tchen, the Time’s Up Foundation’s CEO and President. The full statement, which called the judicial system “broken,” can be read here.
“Today’s devastating decision to overturn the conviction of a man who caused so much harm, pain, and emotional trauma to so many women is a travesty and an injustice. It reminds us again of the struggle that the survivors of his predatory behavior and actions have endured to make their voice’s heard. The semblance of justice these women had in knowing Cosby was convicted has been completely erased with his release today. But let’s be clear, even the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision did not challenge the finding of the jury that Bill Cosby committed sexual assault. To the survivors in this case, each of you came forward with great courage against a powerful man at great personal risk. We were standing with you then and we’re here standing next to you now. We are holding you up in this deeply painful moment. We will continue to fight for and with you, and hope this decision won’t discourage you or others from continuing in the fight to end sexual violence. Your bravery and resolve will not be in vain.”
Women in Film Los Angeles was also among the many organizations to condemn the news of Cosby’s release.
“Today’s news is a setback in the fight for justice for sexual assault survivors. When the system disregards dozens of accusers in a situation like thi s— because of a technical loophole, not because of the proof that led to sentencing — it creates the perception that it’s ‘not worth it’ for victims to come forward,” WIF said in a statement. “We strongly support all sexual assault survivors hearing this news today. We call on everyone in a position of power in the screen industries to put an end to the culture of silence and acceptance that allowed Cosby to prey on so many women.”
Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who helped kickstart the #MeToo movement with her 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, called it “a miscarriage of justice.”
— Gretchen Carlson (@GretchenCarlson) June 30, 2021
At the same time, Phylicia Rashad, Cosby’s former co-star on his smash NBC sitcom that ran from 1984-92, cheered his release, calling it “a miscarriage of justice corrected.” (After a massive backlash, Rashad tweeted later that she didn’t mean to diminish sexual assault survivors.)
Anita Hill also spoke out on the freeing of Cosby on Wednesday afternoon. “The Cosby ruling demonstrates how failures in our criminal justice systems make accountability for sexual assault impossible,” Hill wrote. “Questionable non-prosecution agreements are only one problem. Also troubling is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling left open the question of whether evidence provided by five women to show a pattern of abuse was admissible. For decades, victims and survivors have called for reform in the way sexual assault cases are handled by police and prosecutors. But the dire need for improvement to our systems isn’t limited to criminal prosecutions. Sexual assault, harassment and extortion happens in workplaces every day. Systems that ensure accountability for powerful abusers, protect workers and prevent agreements that shield abusers are urgently needed in entertainment and other industries.”
Wednesday evening Eastern Time, Cosby tweeted triumphantly from his Twitter account.
“I have never changed my stance nor my story. 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. #BillCosby”
I have never changed my stance nor my story. 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. #BillCosby pic.twitter.com/bxELvJWDe5
— Bill Cosby (@BillCosby) June 30, 2021
Elizabeth Wagmeister and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.