Bill Cosby released after court overturns sex assault conviction

Pennsylvania’s highest court says an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented him from being charged in the case.

Bill Cosby departs from the court after he was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial, at the Montgomery County Court in Norristown, Pennsylvania, April 26, 2018 [File: Matt Slocum/AP Photo]

Bill Cosby has been released from prison on Wednesday after the US State of Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his sex assault conviction, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

The state’s high court found that an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented him from being charged in the case.

Cosby was released “from SCI Phoenix just before” 2:30pm local time (18:30 GMT), the Department of Corrections said in a tweet.

Cosby has served more than two years of a three- to 10-year sentence at a state prison near Philadelphia. He had pledged to serve all 10 years rather than acknowledge any remorse over the 2004 encounter with accuser Andrea Constand.

The 83-year-old Cosby, who was once beloved as “America’s Dad”, was convicted of drugging and molesting the Temple University employee at his suburban estate.

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.

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby leaves the Montgomery County Court in handcuffs after sentencing in his sexual assault trial in Norristown, Pennsylvania on September 25, 2018 [File: Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

The trial judge had allowed just one other accuser to testify at Cosby’s first trial, when the jury deadlocked. However, he then allowed five other accusers to testify at the retrial about their experiences with Cosby in the 1980s.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the testimony tainted the trial, even though a lower appeals court had found it appropriate to show a signature pattern of drugging and molesting women.

Justice David Wecht, writing for a split court, said Cosby had relied on the former district attorney’s decision not to charge him when the comedian gave his potentially incriminating 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.”

His appeals lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, said Cosby should never have been prosecuted.

“District attorneys can’t change it up simply because of their political motivation,” she told the Associated Press news agency, adding that Cosby remains in excellent health, apart from being legally blind.

Cosby was the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era, so the reversal could make prosecutors wary of calling other accusers in similar cases. The law on prior bad act testimony varies by state, though, and the ruling holds sway only in Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors did not immediately say if they would appeal or seek to try Cosby for a third time.

The justices voiced concern not just about sexual assault cases, but what they saw as the judiciary’s increasing tendency to allow testimony that crosses 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.

Harvey Weinstein Appears In Court For Bail Hearing
Harvey Weinstein leaves New York City Criminal Court after a bail hearing on December 6, 2019 [File: Scott Heins/Getty Images via AFP]

In New York, the judge presiding over last year’s trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case had sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Weinstein now faces separate charges in California.

In Cosby’s case, one of his appellate lawyers said prosecutors put on vague evidence about the uncharged conduct, including Cosby’s own recollections in his deposition about giving women alcohol or quaaludes before sexual encounters.

“The presumption of innocence just didn’t exist for him,” Jennifer Bonjean, the lawyer, argued to the court in December.

In May, Cosby was denied parole after refusing to participate in sex offender programmes during his nearly three years in state prison. He has long said he would resist the treatment programmes and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it means serving the full 10-year sentence.

This is the first year he was eligible for parole under the three- to 10-year sentence handed down after his 2018 conviction.

Cosby spokesperson Andrew Wyatt called the parole board decision “appalling”.

Cosby, a groundbreaking Black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at $400m during his 50 years in the entertainment industry.

He used this wealth to pay $1m bail when charged in 2015. A prosecutor alleged in 2018 that Cosby also paid $3.38m for Constand’s silence, ABC News reported at the time.

Pennsylvania prosecutors said Constand did not approach them, but they sought her out after the deposition was unsealed in 2015.

“The evidence in this case will show that Andrea Constand didn’t come to us. What happened was, after this gets released, we go to her. And we ask if she’s willing to help the commonwealth,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele told the jury, according to ABC News.

Cosby’s trademark clean comedy and homespun wisdom fuelled popular TV shows, books and standup acts.

He fell from favour in his later years as he lectured the Black community about family values, but was attempting a comeback when he was arrested.

“There was a built-in level of trust because of his status in the entertainment industry and because he held himself out as a public moralist,” Adrienne Jappe, assistant district attorney of suburban Montgomery County, argued to the justices.

Cosby had invited Constand to an estate he owns in Pennsylvania the night she said he drugged and sexually assaulted her.

Constand, a former professional basketball player who worked at his alma mater, went to police a year later. The other accusers knew Cosby through the entertainment industry and did not go to the police.

The Associated Press does not typically identify sexual assault victims without their permission, which Constand has granted.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies