Veteran American entertainer Bill Cosby was set free from prison yesterday after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his sex assault conviction.
The court found that 83-year-old Cosby was denied the fairness of due process and should not have been put on trial because he had reached agreement with a previous prosecutor, which prevented him from being charged in the case.
The actor once beloved as “America’s Dad” became the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era when he was convicted in 2018 of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand in 2004 at his suburban estate.
“Cosby’s convictions and judgment of sentence are vacated, and he is discharged,” the court wrote in a 79-page ruling. He returned to his Elkins Park, PA home soon after his release.
The court said 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 when he later gave potentially incriminating testimony in Constand’s civil suit.
There was no evidence that promise was ever put in writing.
Cosby has served more than two years of a three-to-ten-year sentence at a state prison near Philadelphia. He had vowed to serve all ten years rather than acknowledge guilt or show any remorse over the encounter.
He was charged in late 2015, when a prosecutor armed with newly unsealed evidence — Cosby’s damaging deposition from her lawsuit — arrested him days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired.
The trial judge had allowed just one other accuser to testify during Cosby’s first trial, when the jury was deadlocked.
However, he then allowed five other accusers to testify at the retrial about their experiences with Cosby during the 1980s.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that testimony tainted the trial, even though a lower appeals court had found it appropriate to show a signature pattern of drugging and molesting women.
The law on prior bad act testimony varies by state and the ruling holds sway only in Pennsylvania.
Prosecutors did not immediately say whether they would appeal or seek to try Cosby for a third time.
The justices voiced concern not just about sex assault cases, but what they saw as the judiciary’s increasing tendency to allow testimony that crossed the line into character attacks.
The law allows the testimony only in limited cases, including to show a crime pattern so specific it serves to identify the perpetrator.
In New York, the judge in last year’s trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case had sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, allowed four other accusers to testify.
Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. He is now facing separate charges in California.
In Cosby’s case, one of his appellate lawyers said that prosecutors put on vague evidence about the uncharged conduct, including Cosby’s own recollections in his deposition about giving women alcohol or drugs before sexual encounters.
“The presumption of innocence just didn’t exist for him,” Jennifer Bonjean, one of his appeal lawyers, argued to the court in December.
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