In vacating Bill Cosby's aggravated assault conviction on Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also overturned what had been considered a milestone win in the long, difficult battle for dozens of women who had accused the comedian of misconduct.
Sixty women have accused Cosby, 83, of a variety of offenses, including groping, sexual assault and rape as far back as the 1960s.
Cosby has repeatedly denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex and did so again on Wednesday after his release from prison.
When Cosby was convicted in 2018, activists considered the jury’s decision a landmark in the movement to hold alleged sexual predators accountable.
For all but one Cosby accuser, the statute of limitations had passed by the time a deluge of accusers went public in 2014 and 2015. That was Andrea Constand, who accused Cosby of drugging and molesting her at his Pennsylvania home in 2004.
There were less than two weeks before the statute of limitations expired in Constand’s case when Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele filed charges against Cosby. A decade earlier, prosecutors had declined to press charges.
Steele was likely motivated to bring Constand’s case to trial, despite prosecutorial difficulties, in part because of the dozens of women who came forward against Cosby, NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said.
“This was probably seen as a piece of symbolic justice,” Cevallos said. “That if they could find one person for whom it might quietly vindicate or somehow bring justice to the women who could never bring their case because the statute expired.”
The vacated conviction Wednesday had nothing to do with the credibility of the women who came forward, Cevallos said, and everything to do with the unique circumstances surrounding the decade-long journey to bring the case to fruition.
The first accusers
An operations manager for Temple University women’s basketball program in 2004, Constand said she was at Cosby’s home to discuss her career when he allegedly drugged and molested her.
Constand initially filed a criminal complaint but authorities at the time said there was not enough evidence to go forward with the case. She then filed a civil case, which Cosby settled with her for nearly $3.4 million in 2006.
She told NBC in 2018 that she took pills from Cosby, believing them to be an herbal supplement, because she trusted him.
“Three blue pills. And he put his hand out, and I said, ‘What are those?’ And he said, ‘They'll help you relax,'" Constand said. "And I said, ‘Are they natural? Are they, like, a herbal remedy?’ And he said, ‘No, they're your friends. Just put them down.’”
Unsealed depositions from the civil case revealed that Cosby said he gave quaaludes, a powerful sedative, to young women he wanted to have sex with.
California lawyer Tamara Green came forward in 2005 with a similar story, telling NBC’s “TODAY” show that Constand’s allegations mirrored her experience with Cosby in the 1970s. Green said she was at a working lunch with Cosby in Los Angeles with the flu and he offered her medicine after noting she looked feverish.
She said that she began to lose motor function and Cosby took her to her apartment, where Green alleges he began to take off her clothes and molest her.
“The center of my being understood that he had gone from helping me to groping me and kissing me and touching me and handling me and you know, taking off my clothes,” Green said.
But she fought back, telling Cosby he’d have to kill her and any plan to rape her would go “badly,” according to Green.
“So he, you know, I guess it was inconvenient at that point, I had not been crushed successfully into submission and he left two $100 bills on my coffee table and he left my apartment,” Green said.
Thirteen women agreed to testify anonymously to the court in Constand’s case but were told they were no longer needed once the pair settled.
A wave of new allegations
In the years after the settlement, Cosby took a step back from acting but executive-produced a show where he interviewed children in 2010 and appeared in documentaries and talk shows over the years.
Then comedian Hannibal Burress came along.
Burress called Cosby a rapist during a set at a comedy club in Philadelphia in 2014, telling the audience about the 13 women who were prepared to accuse Cosby of misconduct in court during Constand’s suit.
“That s--- is upsetting. If you didn’t know about it, trust me,” Burress said on stage. “You leave here and Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ It’s not funny. That s--- has more results than Hannibal Buress.”
The comment made headlines, and a few weeks later, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Barbara Bowman headlined “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”
Bowman said she called Constand’s attorney to offer her allegations for the lawsuit and spoke to the press, becoming one of Cosby’s first public accusers. She told NBC’s “Dateline” in 2018 that she had been invited to a scripting session at Cosby's home in New York City in the 1980s as an acting student and was certain she was drugged and raped while there.
“I had a couple of sips of my wine, end up upstairs not feeling good,” Bowman said. “I remember leaning over the toilet bowl, throwing my guts up, and I’m wearing a man’s white T-shirt that was not mine. I’m in my panties, they’re a wreck.”
Bowman said at the time that Cosby told her that she had gotten drunk and that he had to wash her clothes. She felt like she had a “lobotomy,” she said.
“How do you not know? I didn’t show up in man’s T-shirt, I didn’t show up with soiled panties, and I didn’t show up scratched and bruised and dirty,” Bowman said. “I knew I was raped.”
Bowman did not go to police, but she told her agent, who she alleged told her that no one would believe her. She told "Dateline" that she saw Cosby multiple times after that incident, and he allegedly raped her multiple times.
In an essay for Vanity Fair in December 2014, supermodel Beverly Johnson alleged that Cosby lured her to his home in the mid-1980s and drugged her. Johnson wrote that she realized almost immediately after taking her drink that Cosby had her "drugged good."
"He put his hands around my waist, and I managed to put my hand on his shoulder in order to steady myself," Johnson wrote. "As I felt my body go completely limp, my brain switched into automatic-survival mode. That meant making sure Cosby understood that I knew exactly what was happening at that very moment."
Dozens of women came forward to accuse the comedian of sexual misconduct in 2014 and 2015, bringing a new media firestorm just years before the #MeToo movement.
Cosby has repeatedly denied all allegations.
An old case with new charges
In December 2015, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office announced it had filed an aggravated indecent assault charge against Cosby in Constand’s case. The decision came a little more than a year after Burress’ Philadelphia show but days before Pennsylvania’s 12-year statute of limitations would be up.
It took nearly three years and two trials to convict Cosby. His first trial in 2017 ended in a mistrial after a deadlocked jury, bused in from Pittsburgh, could not come to a decision. Many of the concerns that kept former District Attorney Bruce Castor from pressing charges in 2005 were exposed in court, including the fact that it took Constand a year to speak to authorities about the allegations and a lack of physical evidence.
One of the jurors told NBC affiliate WPXI that the case was “hopeless” and that jurors were in tears trying to come to a decision.
Steele announced immediately that he would retry Cosby on three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Constand and other women testified in court, leading to a 2018 conviction.
Cosby was sentenced three to 10 years in prison, which accusers took as a win despite the long and hard path to get there.
Constand said reliving the assault in court and the criticism that followed, left her feeling “traumatized all over again.”
On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of Cosby’s appeal on the basis of Castor’s dismissal. The court cited Castor's decision not to prosecute Cosby in 2005 in an effort to force Cosby to testify in Constand’s civil case, saying it forced Cosby to give up his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Castor testified to his intention that a civil case would be better for Constand, but Cosby’s depositions were later used in his trial. Those depositions included Cosby’s admissions that he gave Constand Benadryl at his home, that he previously gave women he wanted to sleep with powerful sedatives, and that it would be bad for him if the public believed he drugged and assaulted Constand.
“When an unconditional charging decision is made publicly and with the intent to induce action and reliance by the defendant, and when the defendant does so to his detriment (and in some instances upon the advice of counsel), denying the defendant the benefit of that decision is an affront to fundamental fairness," according to the high court opinion authored by Justice David Wecht.
"For these reasons, Cosby’s convictions and judgment of sentence are vacated, and he is discharged."
In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Kevin Dougherty agreed that due process did not permit prosecutors to engage in “this type of coercive bait-and-switch” to go after Cosby, but disagreed with the decision to vacate Cosby's conviction and to not allow him to be tried on the charge again.
Dougherty instead offered precedent to suggest the court should have allowed for the evidence to be suppressed in a retrial.
“Here, although Cosby detrimentally relied on Castor’s inducement, we can return him to the position he enjoyed prior to being forced to surrender his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by simply suppressing the evidence derived from the civil depositions at which he testified,” Dougherty wrote. “We should not use Castor’s ‘blunder’ to place Cosby in a better position than he otherwise would have been in by forever barring his prosecution.”