Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, breaking news, sweepstakes, and more!
Pennsylvania’s highest court threw out Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and opened the way for his immediate release from prison Wednesday in a stunning reversal of fortune for the comedian once known as “America’s Dad,” ruling 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.
The former “Cosby Show” star 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.
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 the Constand’s civil case.
The court called Cosby’s arrest “an affront to fundamental fairness, particularly when it results in a criminal prosecution that was forgone for more than a decade.”
The justices 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.”
A Cosby spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Nor did a Steele representative, Constand or her lawyer.
“FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!′ the actor’s “Cosby Show” co-star Phylicia Rashad tweeted.
“I am furious to hear this news,” actor Amber Tamblyn, a founder of Time’s Up, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault, said in a Twitter post. “I personally know women who this man drugged and raped while unconscious. Shame on the court and this decision.”
Four judges formed the majority that ruled in Cosby’s favor, while three others dissented in whole or in part.
Even though Cosby was charged only with the assault on Constand, the trial judge 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 criminal behavior on Cosby’s part.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices voiced concern about what they saw as the judiciary’s increasing tendency to allow testimony that crosses the line into character attacks. State law allows “prior bad acts” testimony only in limited cases, including to show a crime pattern so specific it serves to identify the perpetrator.
But the court declined to say whether five other accusers should have been allowed to testify, considering it moot given the finding that Cosby should not have been prosecuted in the first place.
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.
In May, Cosby was denied paroled after refusing to participate in sex offender programs behind bars. He has long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it means serving the full 10-year sentence.
Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and “family man” persona to manipulate young women, holding himself out as a mentor before betraying them.
The groundbreaking Black actor grew up in public housing in Philadelphia and made a fortune estimated at $400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry that included the TV shows “I Spy,” “The Cosby Show” and “Fat Albert,” along with comedy albums and a multitude of television commercials.
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.
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.
The AP does not typically identify sexual assault victims without their permission, which Constand has granted.
Cosby, in the deposition, acknowledged giving quaaludes to a 19-year-old woman before having sex with her at a Las Vegas hotel in 1976. Cosby called the encounter consensual.
On Wednesday, the woman, Therese Serignese, now 64, said the court ruling “takes my breath away.”
“I just think it’s a miscarriage of justice. This is about procedure. It’s not about the truth of the women,” she said. Serignese said she took solace in the fact Cosby served nearly three years behind bars: “That’s as good as it gets in America” for sex crime victims.
This story has been corrected to show that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not express an opinion on the use of additional accusers
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for Oxygen Insider for all the best true crime content.