Bill Cosby was freed from prison on Wednesday afternoon, less than two hours after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction, saying he never should have faced charges after striking a non-prosecution deal with a previous district attorney more than 15 years ago.
The split decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court came after Mr. Cosby had served more than two years of a potential three- to 10-year sentence in a state prison following his 2018 conviction.
Mr. Cosby, 83, was released just before 2:30 p.m. (1830 GMT), the state corrections department said on Twitter.
The comedian and actor was best known for his role as the lovable husband and father in the 1980s television comedy series “The Cosby Show,” earning him the nickname “America’s Dad.”
But his family-friendly reputation was shattered after dozens of women accused him of sexual assault over a period of decades. His conviction was widely seen as a watershed moment in the #MeToo movement that brought forth an array of allegations against powerful men in Hollywood and beyond.
Mr. Cosby was found guilty of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, an employee at his alma mater Temple University, in his home in 2004 after drugging her with unidentified pills. Ms. Constand’s allegations were the only ones against Mr. Cosby that were not too old to allow for criminal charges.
Reaction was swift on social media, with many women involved in the #MeToo movement expressing horror at the decision.
“THIS is why women do not come forward,” writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused former President Donald Trump of raping her decades ago, wrote on Twitter. Mr. Trump has denied her claim.
But Phylicia Rashad, Mr. Cosby’s co-star on “The Cosby Show,” celebrated the ruling for correcting “a miscarriage of justice.”
The Montgomery County district attorney’s office and Mr. Cosby’s spokesperson both did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The court’s majority found that a state prosecutor, Bruce Castor, had struck a deal with Mr. Cosby’s attorneys in 2005 not to bring criminal charges.
As a result, Mr. Cosby was unable to avoid testifying as part of a civil lawsuit that Ms. Constand brought against him, since defendants can only refuse to testify when faced with criminal prosecution.
In a sworn deposition, Mr. Cosby acknowledged giving women sedatives to facilitate sexual encounters, though he maintained they were consensual.
His admissions, which a judge later unsealed in 2015, helped form the basis for criminal charges later that year, when a newly elected district attorney, Kevin Steele, charged Mr. Cosby just days before the statute of limitations was set to expire.
The prosecution, the court found, essentially amounted to reneging on Mr. Castor’s earlier promise not to charge Mr. Cosby.
“In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor D.A.s to prosecute Mr. Cosby violated Mr. Cosby’s due process rights,” Justice David Wecht wrote for a four-judge majority. “There is only one remedy that can completely restore Mr. Cosby to the status quo ante. He must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred.”
One dissenting justice said Mr. Cosby should stay in prison, while two others said it was wrong to bar prosecutors from retrying him, though without relying on the tainted evidence.
“So drastic a step merely increases to an intolerable degree interference with the public interest in having the guilty brought to book,” Associate Justice Kevin Dougherty wrote.
A mid-level appeals court had said the deposition testimony was admissible to illustrate Mr. Cosby’s “unique sexual assault playbook” for drugging and assaulting women.
Justice Wecht, however, said Mr. Cosby was forced to give that testimony only after Mr. Castor said he would not be prosecuted for it, and a retrial even without that testimony could not restore the rights Mr. Cosby gave up by having to testify against himself.
Mr. Castor made national headlines in February as a member of former President Donald Trump’s legal defence team during Trump’s impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. The former prosecutor delivered a rambling opening statement that drew sharp criticism from several senators, including Republican supporters of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cosby’s first trial ended with a hung jury in 2017, when jurors could not reach a unanimous decision on his culpability. But he was found guilty at a second trial, after the judge, Steven O’Neill, allowed prosecutors to call five prior accusers – four more than in the first trial.
Armed with those witnesses, prosecutors argued that Mr. Cosby’s assault of Ms. Constand was a well-rehearsed offence he had honed over decades: he befriended younger women, acting as a mentor, only to sexually assault them, often with the help of drugs.
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