Pennsylvania’s highest court threw out Bill Cosby’s sexual assault and vacated his 2018 conviction. Cosby was released from prison Wednesday in a reversal for the iconic 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. This the first major criminal conviction of the #MeToo era dismantled as Bill Cosby walked out of prison a free man.
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 allegedly drugging and violating Temple University sports administrator Andrea Constand in 2004.
The former “Cosby Show” star — the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era — had no comment as he arrived, and just smiled and nodded later at a news conference outside, where his lawyer Jennifer Bonjean said: “We are thrilled to have Mr. Cosby home.”
“He served three years of an unjust sentence and he did it with dignity and principle,” she added.
Cosby was arrested in 2015, when a district attorney armed with inadmissible deposition testimony from a civil 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.
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 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.”
Cosby was promptly set free from the state prison in suburban Montgomery County and driven home.
“What we saw today was justice, justice for all Americans,” said a Cosby spokesperson, Andrew Wyatt. ”Mr. Cosby’s conviction being overturned is for the world and all Americans who are being treated unfairly by the judicial system and some bad officers.”
Bonjean said Cosby was “extremely happy to be home” and “looks forward to reuniting with his wife and children.” Several supporters outside yelled, “Hey, hey, hey!” — the catchphrase of Cosby’s animated Fat Albert character — which brought a smile from him.
He later tweeted an old photo of himself with his fist raised and eyes closed, with the caption: “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 rules of law.”
“Cosby Show” co-star Phylicia Rashad tweeted: “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”
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, were allegedly 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 May, Cosby was denied parole after refusing to participate in sex offender programs behind bars. He said he would not attend the treatment programs and would not admit to the false accusations 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.
The suburban Philadelphia prosecutor who originally looked into Constand’s allegations, Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor said there was not sufficient evidence to convict Cosby, in addition to the length of time Constand waited to come forward and the fact that she stayed in close, constant contact with Cosby after the alleged assault. Castor declined to prosecute and instead encouraged Constand to sue for damages.
Questioned under oath as part of that lawsuit, Cosby said he used to offer quaaludes, a very popular recreational dug, to women he wanted to have sex with. He eventually settled with Constand for $3.4 million.
Portions of the deposition later became public and caused accusations from other women destroying the comic’s good-guy reputation and career. More than 60 women came forward to say Cosby violated them, however many of the accusers stories were disproven in the investigative process.