Comedian Bill Cosby has been released from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday vacated the indecent assault conviction against him.
The court’s decision upends the long-running legal battle against the once-beloved actor, whose conviction marked a major milestone in the #MeToo movement after he was accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women stretching back decades.
In an 79-page opinion by the court, the justices found that Cosby’s due process rights were violated when he was charged for a 2004 assault after prosecutors previously told the comedian they wouldn’t bring criminal charges against him.
Cosby, 83, has served two years of a three to 10 year sentence. He has been incarcerated at SCI Phoenix, a maximum security prison in Montgomery County.
He was released just before 2:30 p.m. local time, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson Maria Bivens confirmed to NPR.
In April 2018, Cosby was found guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home in Cheltenham, outside Philadelphia.
Constand, who had been working for the women’s basketball team at Temple University, also settled her civil suit with Cosby for $3.38 million.
In December 2019, Cosby lost an appeal of his sexual assault conviction.
“He was found guilty by a jury and now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said in a statement. “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.”
An apparent prosecutor’s promise is central to this controversy
The Pennsylvania high court’s opinion centered around former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor’s assurance to Cosby in 2005 that he would not be charged for drugging and sexually assaulting Constand.
Any agreement between Castor and Cosby was never put into writing, the justices say.
The opinion states that Castor thought a criminal prosecution could be difficult, partly because Constand did not immediately file a complaint against Cosby. The opinion says he was also concerned about a lack of forensic evidence, and declined to prosecute the comedian.
Castor said at the time that Constand’s best chance at justice for her assault was a civil lawsuit, and if Cosby knew he would not face criminal charges, then he couldn’t invoke his Fifth Amendment right in the civil action.
Cosby provided four depositions in which he made “several incriminating statements,” according to the opinion.
“The end result was exactly what D.A. Castor intended: Cosby gave up his rights, and Constand received significant financial relief,” the court wrote. “Cosby was compelled to give inculpatory evidence that led ultimately to a multimillion dollar settlement.”
Years later, when succeeding prosecutors reopened the criminal case and filed criminal charges against Cosby, the depositions under oath were used against him at his trial.
The justices described the about-face as “an affront to fundamental fairness,” saying “no mere changing of the guard strips that circumstance of its inequity.”
The justices did not all agree on this matter. Three joined in the opinion, and the three remaining justices filed two separate opinions.
For example, in his dissent, Justice Thomas Saylor noted that a lower court made an “explicit finding Castor made no promise that the Commonwealth would never prosecute.” He questioned whether the available evidence really shows that such a promise was made.
Prosecutors and victims’ lawyers react
Steele, the prosecutor who charged Cosby, said in a statement that he commends “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.”
He did not address the specific criticisms of his office laid out in the Supreme Court opinion.
Gloria Allred, an attorney who has represented dozens of Cosby’s accusers, said the decision would be devastating to them.
“Despite the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision,” she said, “this was an important fight for justice and even though the court overturned the conviction on technical grounds, it did not vindicate Bill Cosby’s conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement or a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused.”