This past Wednesday actor and comedian Bill Cosby had his 2018 conviction for sexual assault overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and he was released from prison having spent two years of his ten year sentence behind bars.
So what happened? He was tried and convicted before a jury of his peers. Why is he free? Many are asking these same questions. The answer lies in a decision made in 2005, more than a decade prior to his criminal trial, by then District Attorney Bruce Castor (many remember Bruce Castor's memorable performance as President Donald Trump's attorney during the impeachment trial).
The alleged sexual assault occurred in 2004. In 2005 District Attorney Bruce Castor reviewed the matter and declined to prosecute the case. His reasoning was based on a) the fact that he felt that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the comedian, and b) that he was concerned that the victim continued to speak on the phone and meet with Cosby after the incident trying to get a recording of him. Mr. Castor felt that this could be seen as an attempt to get money from Cosby and would undermine her credibility. Castor told Cosby's attorneys at the time that he felt that his decision would prevent Cosby from asserting his 5th Amendment Privilege in a subsequent civil suit. In the civil suit that followed Cosby relied on Castor's statement that he was not being prosecuted and did not assert his 5th Amendment Privilege. He subsequently made incriminating statements admitting to giving the victim Benadryl to relax and Quaaludes to other victims in order to get them to relax and have sex with him. A settlement was eventually reached for $3.38 million dollars.
Fast forward a decade. By now Bruce Castor is no longer the District Attorney. Prosecutors in the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office re-opened the investigation and used Cosby's sworn statements in the civil trial as part of the evidence in the criminal trial against Cosby for sexual assault.
“Castor’s decision not to prosecute Cosby in exchange for his testimony must be enforced,” the state supreme court said. The Court then ruled that Cosby was to be released and any future prosecutions barred. “There is only one remedy that can completely restore Cosby to the status quo ante,” the court said. Three justices on the seven-member court joined the majority opinion by Justice David Wecht. Prosecuting Cosby more than a decade after Castor’s statements, which Cosby relied on to his detriment, was “an affront to fundamental fairness,” Wecht wrote.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was not unanimous in their decision. A dissenter viewed Castor's statements as “a conventional public announcement” that “would in no way be binding upon his own future decision-making processes, let alone those of his successor.” Two concurring and dissenting justices agreed that Cosby’s due-process rights were violated but said the remedy would be to suppress the deposition evidence.
So what happens next? Further prosecution has been barred by the Court and a civil suit was already settled. The next move could come from Cosby himself. He has now spent two years in prison for a crime the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said should not have been charged. He spent a huge amount of money on his criminal defense. Could Bill Cosby turn around and sue for his wrongful charges and conviction? Only time will tell. In the meantime how will his alleged victims feel? Was this justice or another example of a celebrity getting away from the consequences of his actions? It will certainly take a long time to sort all of this out.