(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Actor and comedian Bill Cosby is seen in this booking photo released by Montgomery County Correctional Facility, Maryland U.S., September 25, 2018. Courtesy Montgomery County Correctional Facility/Handout via REUTERS
By Joseph Ax and Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) -Pennsylvania’s highest court on Wednesday overturned Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and ordered him released from prison immediately, saying he never should have faced charges after striking a non-prosecution deal with a previous district attorney more than 15 years ago.
The decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court came after Cosby had served more than two years of a potential three- to 10-year sentence in a state prison following his 2018 conviction.
Cosby, 83, could be released as soon as Wednesday afternoon from a state correctional facility in Shippack, Pennsylvania.
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 landmark moment in the #MeToo movement that brought forth an array of allegations against powerful men in Hollywood and beyond.
Cosby was found guilty of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a Temple University employee, in his home in 2004 after drugging her with unidentified pills. Constand’s allegations were the only ones against Cosby that were not too old to allow for criminal charges.
The court’s majority found that a state prosecutor, Bruce Castor, had struck a deal with Cosby’s attorneys in 2005 not to bring criminal charges.
As a result, Cosby was unable to avoid testifying as part of a civil lawsuit that Constand brought against him, since defendants can only refuse to testify when faced with criminal prosecution.
His sworn deposition, which a judge later unsealed in 2015, prompted a newly elected district attorney, Kevin Steele, to charge Cosby later that year, just days before the statute of limitations was set to expire.
That prosecution, the court found, essentially amounted to reneging on Castor’s earlier promise not to charge Cosby.
“In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor D.A.s to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights,” Justice David Wecht wrote for the majority. “There is only one remedy that can completely restore 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 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.
The trial judge had ruled that Castor and Cosby had not reached a formal deal, noting the lack of a written immunity agreement, and had also questioned Castor’s account. A lower appeals court had upheld that finding, prompting Cosby to turn to the state Supreme Court.
Castor made national headlines in February as a member of former President Donald Trump’s legal defense 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 Trump.
Bill Cosby to be freed from prison after court tosses sexual assault conviction