Bill Cosby freed from prison after court overturns conviction

Pennsylvania's highest court threw out Bill Cosby's sexual assault conviction and allowed his release from prison Wednesday in a stunning reversal of fortune for the comedian. They ruled that the prosecutor who brought the case was bound by his predecessor's agreement not to charge Cosby.

Court ruled prosecutors who brought the case were bound by prior decision not to charge Cosby

In this April 26, 2018, photo, actor and comedian Bill Cosby departs the courthouse after he was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned the conviction. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

Bill Cosby has been freed from prison after Pennsylvania's highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction.

It is a stunning reversal of fortune for the comedian once known as "America's dad." They ruled that the prosecutor who brought the case was bound by his predecessor's agreement not to charge Cosby.

Cosby, 83, has served more than two years of a three- to 10-year sentence after being found guilty of drugging and violating Temple University sports administrator Andrea Constand at his suburban Philadelphia home in 2004. He was the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era.

Cosby was arrested in 2015, when a district attorney armed with newly unsealed evidence — the comic's damaging deposition testimony in a lawsuit brought by Constand — brought charges against him days before the 12-year statute of limitations ran out.

But the Pennsylvania Supreme 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. There was no evidence that promise was ever put in writing.

Four state Supreme Court justices ruled in Cosby's favour while three others dissented in whole or in part. 

Justice David Wecht, writing for a split court, said Cosby had relied on the former prosecutor's decision not to charge him when the comedian later gave his potentially incriminating testimony in Constand's civil case.

Lawyer Jennifer Bonjean and Cosby speak outside of Cosby's home on Wednesday in Cheltenham, Pa. Cosby did not make a statement, though Bonjean said he 'looks forward to reuniting with his wife and children.' (Michael Abbott/Getty Images)

The court 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 returned to his home — flashing a peace sign to a helicopter overhead before walking inside. He had no comment as he arrived, instead just smiled and nodded at a news conference outside, where his lawyer Jennifer Bonjean said: "We are thrilled to have Mr. Cosby home."

Cosby 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."

In a statement, Constand and her lawyers called the ruling disappointing, and they, like many other advocates, expressed fear that it could discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward. "We urge all victims to have their voices heard," they added.

Concern about allowing other accusers' testimony

In sentencing Cosby, the trial judge had ruled him a sexually violent predator who could not be safely allowed out in public and needed to report to authorities for the rest of his life.

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 similarly victimized by Cosby in the 1980s. Prosecutors called them as witnesses to establish what they said was a pattern of behaviour on Cosby's part.

WATCH | Billy Cosby, from 'America's Dad' to #MeToo's first triumph:

Bill Cosby: From 'America's Dad' to #MeToo's first triumph

3 years ago
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Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in jail today for drugging and sexually assaulting a Toronto woman. 3:02

On Wednesday, the majority-opinion justices voiced concern about the use of such testimony not just in sex 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.

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. He is now facing separate charges in California.

Cosby's lawyers had argued on appeal that the use of five additional accusers in his case was improper.

But the Pennsylvania high court did not weigh in on the question, saying it was moot given the justices' finding that Cosby should not have been prosecuted in the first place.

Peter Goldberger, a suburban Philadelphia lawyer with an expertise in criminal appeals, said prosecutors could ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for re-argument 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.

Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse for sentencing in his sexual assault trial in Norristown, Pa., on Sept. 24, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

District attorney originally declined to prosecute

The suburban Philadelphia prosecutor who originally looked into Constand's allegations, Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor, considered the case flawed because Constand waited a year to come forward and stayed in contact with Cosby afterward. 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 to women he wanted to have sex with. He eventually settled with Constand for $3.4 million US.

Portions of the deposition later became public at the request of The Associated Press and spelled Cosby's downfall, opening the floodgates on accusations from other women and destroying the comic's good-guy reputation and career. More than 60 women came forward to say Cosby violated them.

Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and "family man" persona to manipulate young women, holding himself out as a mentor before betraying them.

Cosby, left, appears on set during the taping of the final episode of The Cosby Show on March 6, 1992, in New York. As an actor, Cosby made an estimated fortune of $400 million US. (Associated Press)

50-year acting career

Cosby, a groundbreaking Black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at $400 million US during his 50 years in the entertainment industry. His 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," Assistant District Attorney Adrienne Jappe, 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 police.

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

With files from CBC News