The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the indecent assault conviction of Bill Cosby on Wednesday and ordered his release from prison after finding that he was denied protection against self-incrimination.
The court said that a prosecutor's decision not to charge Cosby, 83, in an earlier case opened the door for him to speak freely in a lawsuit against him, thinking he would not incriminate himself criminally. A second prosecutor later used the lawsuit testimony in a criminal trial, and that testimony was key in his conviction years later.
Cosby was convicted on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault in 2018 of drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004, and was serving a three- to 10-year sentence. He has served nearly three years of the sentence.
The state Supreme Court said Cosby cannot be retried on the same charges.
"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."
The prosecution of Cosby was one of the first major milestones of the #MeToo movement, as women came forward with their tales of unwanted sexual advances and harassment in the workplace.
Cosby’s spokesman Andrew Wyatt thanked the comedian's legal team and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, calling Wednesday's ruling a moment of justice for Black Americans.
"This is the justice Mr. Cosby has been fighting for," Wyatt said in a statement. "They saw the light. He waived his Fifth Amendment right and settled out of court. He was given a deal and he had immunity. He should have never been charged."
Constand released a joint statement with her attorneys on Wednesday, asserting that she was never privy to any kind of prosecutorial deal with Cosby in 2005.
"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 from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action," the statement said.
About two hours after the ruling was published on Wednesday, Cosby was released from the SCI Phoenix detention center about 35 miles northeast of Philadelphia, where he had been housed as inmate No. NN7687, a corrections official said.
The freed Cosby was driven to his home Elkins Park, which is about 25 miles southeast of the prison. He was helped out of the car while wearing a maroon T-shirt and baggy blue pants.
Cosby emerged from the house a short time later wearing a T-shirt of Central High School in Philadelphia. A handful of supporters cheered him with shouts of "hey, hey, hey," an homage to the animated character he voiced, Fat Albert.
He raised a fist, but did not answer any questions from reporters.
Cosby later called in to local Philadelphia radio station WDAS-FM, where he said the audience needed "clarity, they need guidance."
"Because this is not just a Black thing," Cosby said. "This is for all the people who have been imprisoned wrongfully regardless of race, color, or creed. Because I met them in there. People who talked about what happened and what they did. And I know there are many liars out there."
Cosby also tweeted a statement on Wednesday following his release from prison: "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 rule of law."
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele lamented Cosby’s release and characterized the state high court’s findings as a "procedural issue."
“He was found guilty by a jury and now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime,” Steele said in a statement.
“I want to commend Cosby’s victim Andrea Constand for her bravery in coming forward and remaining steadfast throughout this long ordeal, as well as all of the other women who have shared similar experiences. My hope is that this decision will not dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims.”
The entertainer once dubbed “America’s Dad” was sent to state prison following his 2018 conviction for drugging and sexually assaulting Constand.
She testified that Cosby assaulted her at his Pennsylvania home in 2004 after she came to him for career advice.
But Bruce Castor, the Montgomery district attorney at the time, declined to press charges against the comedian and actor, "thereby allowing Cosby to be forced to testify in a subsequent civil action," according to the high court.
"Unable to invoke any right not to testify in the civil proceedings, Cosby relied upon the district attorney’s declination and proceeded to provide four sworn depositions. During those depositions, Cosby made several incriminating statements," Justice Wecht wrote in a 79-page opinion, joined by Justices Debra Todd, Christine Donohue and Sallie Updyke Mundy.
"The fruits of Cosby’s reliance upon D.A. Castor’s decision — Cosby’s sworn inculpatory testimony — were then used by D.A. Castor’s successors against Cosby at Cosby’s criminal trial."
Justice Kevin Dougherty sided with the majority and said large swaths of Cosby's prosecution amounted to a "coercive bait-and-switch," after Castor did not push a criminal case.
But Dougherty said vacating the conviction was not a proper remedy and argued that Cosby could be tried again, just without evidence obtained from the comedian's civil suit deposition.
"We can order it suppressed," wrote Dougherty, who was joined by Chief Justice Max Baer. "And in fact this is precisely what this Court and many others have done in comparable situations."
Justice Thomas Saylor wrote in dissent and said Castor's decision not to prosecute Cosby was never set in stone for all following district attorneys.
Castor's action was just "a present exercise of prosecutorial discretion by the temporary occupant of the elected office of district attorney that would in no way be binding upon his own future decision-making processes, let alone those of his successor," Saylor wrote.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) decried the state high court ruling.
“We are deeply disappointed in today’s ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and by the message this decision sends to the brave survivors who came forward to seek justice for what Bill Cosby did to them," RAINN President Scott Berkowitz said in a statement. "This is not justice.”
And Christian Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women, bemoaned Cosby's release as the result of a "technicality."
"Today, the judicial system in America failed survivors again," Nunes said in a statement.
"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault not because anyone doubted his guilt of numerous crimes, but because of a prior legal agreement’s impact on the trial. Bill Cosby is free on a technicality, but the women he assaulted, who bravely came forward to bring him to justice, are suffering anew. They thought they had finally achieved some limited measure of closure — and now this."
In a rare jailhouse interview in 2019, Cosby said he wouldn't offer any remorse for his actions — even if that would've affected a parole board's decision.
"When I come up for parole, they're not going to hear me say that I have remorse. I was there. I don't care what group of people come along and talk about this when they weren't there. They don't know," Cosby told the news outlet BlackPressUSA.com.