Bill Cosby was released from prison Wednesday after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction and barred him from being retried, upending the first high-profile celebrity conviction of the #MeToo era.
The justices ruled the 83-year-old comedian - who has served more than two years of a three-to-10-year sentence - had been denied a fair trial, citing an agreement struck with a previous prosecutor that the justices said barred Cosby from ever being charged with the 2004 assault of Temple University employee Andrea Constand.
Justice David N. Wecht, writing for the majority, said Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele was legally bound by that decade-old promise and therefore should not have brought charges when new evidence surfaced in 2015.
Vacating Cosby’s conviction, Wecht said, "is the only remedy that comports with society’s reasonable expectations of its elected prosecutors and our criminal justice system."
The decision resulted in Cosby’s release from the state prison in Montgomery County Wednesday afternoon. Maria Bivens, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, confirmed in the afternoon that he had been released.
News photographers and TV camera people gathered at the front of Cosby’s estate in Elkins Park, where he returned home an hour later in a Subaru hatchback, driven by an aide. The car stopped briefly as a supporter shouted good wishes to Cosby outside the gates.
The former entertainer neither rolled down his window nor spoke to reporters gathered outside.
His spokesperson, Andrew Wyatt, came to the front gate, reaching across to shake hands with a couple of cheering supporters and shouted, "We did it! We did it!" He called Cosby’s prison time "a three year unwanted vacation" and described the prosecution as "ludicrous" and "racially motivated."
"We pulled the sheets off today, and America got to see the truth," Wyatt said. "What we were able to prove today is that Mr. Cosby is innocent."
A procedural issue
But the court, in its ruling, made no finding on the sufficiency of the evidence against Cosby. Instead, Steele noted in his own statement, the justices vacated the conviction "on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime."
"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," Steele said. "We still believe that no one is above the law - including those who are rich, famous and powerful."
Constand’s lawyer said she was reviewing the decision and declined to comment on the case.
The case had a complicated history that began in 2005 when Constand first reported the alleged assault to the office of then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., who ultimately declined to file charges.
At the time, Castor said he was not confident her allegations would hold up to scrutiny in a criminal court. But he maintained he struck the non-prosecution deal with Cosby to compel him to testify in a civil suit that Constand had separately filed against him, hoping that at least she could find justice in civil court.
No evidence has been presented that this agreement was ever memorialized in writing. But Castor has previously cited a news release he issued on the decision in 2005 as binding on all prosecutors who succeeded him.
Castor’s successors reopened the case and charged Cosby in 2015, just days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired and amid a barrage of new accusations from women across the country.
Promise of non-prosecution
Excerpts from Cosby’s deposition in the Constand’s civil suit were ultimately used against Cosby at trial in what the high court justices described Wednesday as a violation of his constitutional rights to due process.
"When a prosecutor makes an unconditional promise of non-prosecution, and when the defendant relies upon that guarantee to the detriment of his constitutional right not to testify ... our criminal justice system demands that the promise be enforced," Wecht wrote.
Castor, who had testified as a defense witness in pretrial hearings seeking the case’s dismissal, said Wednesday he felt "vindicated" by the Supreme Court’s analysis. Still, he added, he was indifferent to the fact that his promise led to Cosby’s release.
"The Supreme Court has spoken," he said. "I don’t feel any regret that he got out and I don’t feel any satisfaction that he got out."
Others were not so neutral. Janice Baker-Kinney, who was one of the five women to testify against Cosby in addition to Constand, said she was shocked by the Supreme Court ruling.
"It’s going to take me a little while for this to set in and realize what’s happening just because I’m just stunned," she said.
Baker-Kinney said she keeps in touch with several other women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault, and considers them close friends. "We still have a great support system, and we’ll get through this the same way when we first came out with our truths," she said.
M. Stewart Ryan, who was one of the lead prosecutors on the case and has since left the district attorney’s office to work in private practice, said Wednesday’s ruling does not change the fact that a jury decided Cosby was guilty.
"That jury came to the conclusion to convict him and nothing, as far as I understand, about the opinion by the Supreme Court changes that fact," he said.