Disgraced actor and comedian Bill Cosby was released this week after three years in prison when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned her 2018 drug and sexual assault convictions of Andrea Constand in 2004 when she was an employee of Temple University .
The abrupt overturning of the first high profile sexual assault conviction after the #MeToo movement has attracted particular interest and raises questions such as whether Mr Cosby, because of the sexual assault and misconduct allegations that have more than 50 women, could continue to be prosecuted against him.
Here is an analysis of the legal issues.
Why did the court overturn the conviction?
Since the prosecutors violated Mr. Cosby’s rights by breaking an obvious promise not to prosecute him, the majority of the court ruled.
In 2005, Bruce L. Castor Jr., then the District Attorney for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, published a press release saying that he had declined to indict Mr. Cosby on the matter. Mr. Cosby then stood up for testimony in a separate lawsuit that Ms. Constand filed against him, which he paid her $ 3.38 million to settle in 2006.
But a later district attorney overturned Mr Castor’s decision and accused the entertainer of attacking Ms. Constand after all. At the trial, prosecutors used what Mr Cosby said in the testimony – his admission that he had given quaaludes to women in order to have sex with them for the past few decades – as evidence against him.
“We believe that when a prosecutor makes an unconditional promise of non-charge, and when the defendant relies on that guarantee to prejudice his or her constitutional right to remain silent, it is the principle of fundamental fairness that underlies due process in our criminal proceedings The judicial system demands that the promise be enforced, ”wrote Judge David Norman Wecht.
Why did Mr. Castor say he wasn’t going to charge Mr. Cosby?
Mr Castor – who was one of the defense counsel in President Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment before the Senate that year – said he announced in 2005 that Mr Cosby would not be indicted to prevent him from pleading law of the fifth constitutional amendment against self-incriminations, so that he would have to testify in the upcoming civil trial against Ms. Constand.
When Cosby’s defense team tried to drop the charges in 2016, they took the unusual step of naming Mr Castor as a witness at a pre-trial hearing. He testified that he believed Ms. Constand but did not believe there was enough evidence to unequivocally support her allegations. He defended his decision to help her.
“I decided we weren’t going to prosecute Mr. Cosby, and that would start a chain of events that would bring Andrea Constand some justice,” Castor said.
Has Mr. Castor made a binding promise?
Yes, said the majority in the Supreme Court.
There was no formal, written, non-prosecutor’s agreement – just the terse press release – and Ms. Constand and her lawyers have said they were not given any promise or deal.
Against this background, there was a legal dispute as to whether Mr. Castor had actually given a binding promise that Mr. Cosby would never be charged – and if so, whether he was authorized to do so. Mr Castor claimed he made such a promise, but the trial judge disagreed and ruled that the criminal case initiated by the new District Attorney could continue. But the majority of the Supreme Court supported Mr. Castor’s interpretation of what he had done.
While this does not necessarily mean that immunizing Mr Cosby before prosecution was the right thing to do, Mr Castor said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he believes his prosecutor’s decision in 2005 was “exonerated” by the Supreme Court decision . The verdict was a “junkyard” for the current prosecutor, he said.
“I was there already in 2005, and in 2021 I’m exactly right,” said Mr Castor. “I am proud that our Supreme Court has the courage to make an unpopular decision.”
Does the verdict mean that Mr. Cosby has not committed a crime against Ms. Constand?
No. It just means that he can’t be blamed for it.
Judge Wecht acknowledged that the court’s decision to exclude prosecution on these specific charges was “both grave and rare,” but said it was necessary. Although society has a keen interest in prosecuting crimes, he wrote, it has an even stronger interest “in ensuring that the constitutional rights of the people are respected”.
Could Mr. Cosby be facing a new trial?
Not for attacking Ms. Constand. The majority opinion of Judge Wecht – for four of the seven judges – was: “He must be dismissed and any future prosecution for these particular charges must be ruled out.”
(Two other judges agreed that the conviction should be overturned because “due process does not allow the government to engage in this type of compulsory bait.” Evidence not used Mr. Cosby’s testimony. The Seventh Judge disagreed with the majority but implied that if it were not in dispute, he would be inclined to reschedule for other reasons.)
This impunity only applies to the specific allegations that Mr. Cosby drugged and assaulted Ms. Constand. Other women across the country have also come forward to accuse the entertainer of attacking her similarly over the past few years. But those allegations concerned encounters so long ago that statute of limitations forbids him from being charged.
Could the prosecution appeal against the judgment?
Yes. You could ask the US Supreme Court to review the Pennsylvania judges’ constitutional analysis.
Will this ruling affect other #MeToo cases?
Not directly. But in a statement, Ms. Constand and her lawyers said the decision was not only disappointing but also raised concerns “that it could deter those seeking justice in the criminal justice system for sexual assault from reporting the assailant or joining the prosecution involve, or may force a victim to choose between criminal or civil action. “
Julia Jacobs contributed to the reporting.