Bill Cosby, the disgraced former TV star once beloved as “America’s dad”, walked free from prison today after a judge in Pennsylvania overturned his sexual assault conviction – the first prosecution in the #MeToo movement.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled 83-year-old Cosby, who was two years into a three- to 10-year sentence for drugging and molesting a woman in 2004, did not receive a fair trial.
Lisa Bloom, a lawyer representing three of Cosby’s other accusers, called the ruling a “kick in the gut" to victims, saying "the system still massively favors the rich and powerful.”
The court found that a previous prosecutor had made a deal with Cosby not to charge him in the case.
Justice David Wecht said Cosby had relied on that decision when he later gave potentially incriminating testimony in a civil suit brought by victim, Andrea Constand.
He said that vacating 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."
Ms Constand said: “Today’s majority decision regarding Bill Cosby is not only disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system or participating in the prosecution of the assailant or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action.”
Cosby was two years into his sentence
Legal experts on Wednesday described the decision as “extremely rare, if not unprecedented.”
Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahman said Bruce Castor, Cosby’s attorney who represented Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, “used a creative argument and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court bought it.”
The comedian and star of the hugely popular sitcom The Cosby Show was charged in late 2015, when a prosecutor arrested him days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired.
The trial judge had allowed just one other accuser to testify at 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 in the 1980s.
Cosby had vowed to serve all 10 years rather than acknowledge any remorse over the 2004 encounter at his Pennsylvania home with accuser Ms Constand, an employee of Temple University in Philadelphia.
Andrea Constand walks to the courtroom during Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial in 2017
The US state’s highest 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.
"Cosby’s convictions and judgment of sentence are vacated, and he is discharged," the court wrote in a 79-page ruling.
In a message posted on Cosby’s official Twitter account, he thanked the court for "upholding the rule of law" and the fans who stood by him.
It said: "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."
Friends and family of Cosby had appealed for the former actor to be released from jail, saying he was elderly, frail and legally blind.
In May, Cosby was denied paroled after refusing to participate in sex offender programs during his nearly three years in state prison. He has long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing.
More than 60 women came forward with allegations of either sexual assault, rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery, child sexual abuse, or sexual misconduct by Cosby, all of which he denied, and the statute of limitations had by the mid-2010s expired in nearly all cases.
Bill Cosby on the day he was sentenced in September 2018
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Cosby was the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era, which rocked Hollywood and beyond.
Some now fear 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 only holds sway in Pennsylvania.
The decision sparked outrage from women across the US who had come forward with their own claims of sexual abuse.
“THIS is why women do not come forward,” tweeted E Jean Carroll, a journalist who has accused former president Mr Trump of sexually assaulting her in the mid-1990s. Mr Trump, who is facing a civil lawsuit in the case, has denied the claims.
Protesters outside Cosby's house in Pennsylvania
Cosby, a groundbreaking black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at $400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry. His trademark clean comedy and homespun wisdom fueled 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, went to police a year later. The other accusers knew Cosby through the entertainment industry and did not go to police.