Bill Cosby had his conviction for sexual assault overturned by a Pennsylvania appeals court on Wednesday and was freed from prison, a dramatic reversal in a case had represented the first high-profile sexual assault trial to unfold in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.
Mr. Cosby had served three years of a three- to 10-year prison sentence at a maximum-security facility outside Philadelphia when the seven-member Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Cosby, 83, had been denied a fair trial in 2018.
After returning home, Mr. Cosby thanked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for “upholding the rule of law.”
“I have always maintained my innocence.,” he said in a statement on Twitter. “Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal.”
The ruling upended the legal case against Mr. Cosby brought by prosecutors in Pennsylvania that began with his arrest in 2015 on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs eleven years earlier. At the end of the trial in April 2018, the jury convicted Mr. Cosby, who for years had brightened America’s living rooms as a beloved entertainer and father figure, of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, to whom Mr. Cosby had been a mentor and who was at the time a Temple University employee.
In 2019, an interim court had upheld the trial verdict. But the Supreme Court, the state’s highest court, agreed to consider the case, and at a hearing in December, some of the court’s seven justices questioned prosecutors sharply.
In their 79-page opinion, the judges wrote that a “non-prosecution agreement” that had been struck with a previous prosecutor meant that Mr. Cosby should not have been charged in the case, and that he should be discharged. They barred a retrial in the case.
Brian W. Perry, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Cosby, praised the ruling.
“We are thrilled with the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said. “To be honest with you, we all believed, collectively, that this is how the case would end. We did not think he was treated fairly and fortunately the Supreme Court agreed.”
Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said: “We are deeply disappointed in today’s ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and by the message this decision sends to the brave survivors who came forward to seek justice for what Bill Cosby did to them. This is not justice.”
The decision undoes a verdict that several women who said that they had been assaulted and raped by Mr. Cosby had praised at the time as a measure of justice that had been long in coming. In a victim impact statement filed with the court in 2018, Ms. Constand had said of Mr. Cosby: “We may never know the full extent of his double life as a sexual predator, but his decades-long reign of terror as a serial rapist is over.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court freed the actor Bill Cosby from prison based largely on a past agreement with a former Pennsylvania prosecutor best known for defending President Donald J. Trump during his February impeachment trial.
In a 79-page opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote that a “non-prosecution agreement” that had been struck with Bruce L. Castor Jr. meant that Bill Cosby should not have been charged in the case for which he was convicted and sentenced in 2018. The court also barred a retrial.
The agreement came about when, in 2005, Mr. Cosby was investigated in the case of Andrea Constand, and Mr. Castor, a former district attorney of Montgomery County, gave Mr. Cosby his assurance that he would not be charged in the case.
Mr. Castor testified that while there was insufficient evidence to bring a criminal prosecution, he had given Mr. Cosby the assurance to encourage him to testify in a subsequent civil case brought by Ms. Constand.
In that testimony, Mr. Cosby acknowledged giving quaaludes to women he was pursuing for sex — evidence that played a key part in his trial after Mr. Castor’s successors reopened the case and charged Mr. Cosby in December 2015.
“In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor D. A.s to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights,” the appeals ruling said.
Even before the #MeToo movement transformed the way the country, and the world, viewed sexual misconduct and emboldened scores of people to speak out against powerful men, dozens of women came forward with their own accusations against Bill Cosby.
So when Mr. Cosby was found guilty in 2018 of assaulting Andrea Constand years earlier, his accusers cheered the decision as long-awaited vindication and evidence that famous and influential men could be held accountable.
On Wednesday, that sense of relief and justification came crashing down after a Pennsylvania court overturned Mr. Cosby’s conviction.
Patricia Steuer, 65, who accused Mr. Cosby of drugging and assaulting her in 1978 and 1980, said that she had been preparing herself for the possibility that Mr. Cosby’s conviction would be overturned but was still “a little stunned” by the court’s ruling.
“I’m feeling sad because this is absolutely a perceived loss on my part,” said Ms. Steuer, who said she found out about the decision on Facebook. “I’m wondering what the 43-year ordeal that I went through was supposed to be about.”
But she also said she was “consoled by the fact that I believe we did the only thing that we could, which is to come forward and tell the truth.”
With the ruling, Mr. Cosby “may claim that he’s been vindicated or persecuted or that he’s innocent, but I know that’s not true, and the other women who came forward also know that that’s not true,” she said.
Victoria Valentino, another of Mr. Cosby’s accusers, told ABC News “my stomach is lurching” and that she was “deeply distressed” by what she said was “the injustice of the whole thing.”
In a brief telephone interview on Wednesday, she said only that she was “overwhelmed and devastated.”
Ms. Steuer worried, too, about what the ruling meant for the #MeToo movement. “This is going to have ramifications for any woman who has ever come forward about a man who did this to them or any person who is thinking about coming forward,” she said.
In a statement, the National Organization for Women denounced Mr. Cosby’s release, saying that “the judicial system in America” had “failed survivors again.”
And in her own statement, Gloria Allred, the lawyer for dozens of Mr. Cosby’s accusers, said her heart went out to “those who bravely testified in both of his criminal cases.”
“Despite the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision, this was an important fight for justice and even though the court overturned the conviction on technical grounds, it did not vindicate Bill Cosby’s conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement or a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused,” Ms. Allred said.
Many on Twitter condemned Bill Cosby’s release from prison on Wednesday as a setback for the #MeToo movement. But his staunchest supporters, including actress Phylicia Rashad, celebrated his freedom.
“FINALLY!!!!” Ms. Rashad, who appeared as Mr. Cosby’s wife in “The Cosby Show,” wrote on Twitter. “A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”
Mr. Cosby, whose 2018 sexual assault case was seen as the first major criminal conviction of the #MeToo era, was freed from prison on Wednesday after a Pennsylvania appeals court overturned his conviction.
The court ruled that a “non-prosecution agreement” should have prevented him from ever being charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, to whom Mr. Cosby had been a mentor.
Ms. Rashad, who was recently named the dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts and was scheduled to start the new role on Thursday, has previously spoken out in support of Mr. Cosby.
“I just don’t accept what somebody says because they say it, and they say it in a loud voice,” Ms. Rashad told Bustle in an interview when asked about Mr. Cosby last year. “The internet has given a lot of anonymous people a very loud voice.”
Ms. Rashad later clarified that she supported survivors of sexual assault coming forward.
“My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth,” she said in a tweet. “Personally, I know from friends and family that such abuse has lifelong residual effects. My heartfelt wish is for healing.”
Celebrities and prominent fixtures of the #MeToo movement have rushed to reply to Ms. Rashad. The former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose sexual harassment suit against the chief executive at the time, Roger Ailes, was among them.
“Phylicia! #BillCosby being released from prison on a technicality is a complete miscarriage of justice & will never be an exoneration for the brutal crimes he committed against women,” she wrote on Twitter. “The world is now woke & women will no longer be silenced. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Tarana Burke, the activist who started the #MeToo movement, shared a viral tweet by Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University. “BILL COSBY IS NOT INNOCENT. HE HAS NOT BEEN EXONERATED,” Mr. Hill wrote on Twitter. “His release means that Cosby, a sexual predator, was incarcerated within a criminal legal system that has as little regard for its own rules and procedures as Cosby does for his victims.”
Time’s Up, the charity founded by prominent Hollywood figures to support victims of sexual harassment and assault, issued a statement calling the verdict devastating.
“The semblance of justice these women had in knowing Cosby was convicted has been completely erased with his release today,” wrote Tina Tchen, the foundation’s chief executive and president. “But let’s be clear, even the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision did not challenge the finding of the jury that Bill Cosby committed sexual assault.”
Andrea Constand, the former Temple University employee whose accusations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby led to his conviction, released a statement on Wednesday about the ruling. The case had been the first high-profile conviction of the #MeToo movement, and represented a symbolic victory for the dozens of women who said they were victims of Mr. Cosby.
“Today’s majority decision regarding Bill Cosby is not only disappointing but of concern that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant,” the statement said, which was released by her lawyers.
Ms. Constand had previously praised the guilty verdict in the 2018 trial, saying “truth prevails.”
In her victim impact statement submitted for the sentencing phase of the trial, Ms. Constand said at the time of the assault, she was “30 years old, and a fit, confident athlete.”
I had just given my two-month notice at Temple when the man I had come to know as a mentor and friend drugged and sexually assaulted me. Instead of being able to run, jump and pretty much do anything I wanted physically, during the assault, I was paralyzed and completely helpless. I could not move my arms or legs. I couldn’t speak or even remain conscious. I was completely vulnerable, and powerless to protect myself.
After the assault, I wasn’t sure what had actually happened but the pain spoke volumes. The shame was overwhelming. Self-doubt and confusion kept me from turning to my family or friends as I normally did. I felt completely alone, unable to trust anyone, including myself.
Afterward, she returned to Canada, where she eventually reported the assault to police. “Bill Cosby took my beautiful, healthy young spirit and crushed it,” she wrote. “He robbed me of my health and vitality, my open nature, and my trust in myself and others.”
June 30, 2021
Three years into the prison sentence Bill Cosby has served at a maximum-security facility outside Philadelphia, the seven-member Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that he had been denied a fair trial in 2018. The decision sets free a man whose case had represented the first high-profile sexual assault trial to unfold in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.
Sept. 25, 2018
A judge sentenced Mr. Cosby to three to 10 years in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand 14 years ago. Mr. Cosby was led away in handcuffs after the judge denied a request that he remain free on bail while he pursues an anticipated appeal.
April 26, 2018
A jury found Mr. Cosby guilty on three counts of assaulting Ms. Constand: penetration with lack of consent, penetration while unconscious and penetration after administering an intoxicant. These are felonies, each punishable by up to 10 years in state prison, though the sentences could be served concurrently.
April 9, 2018
The retrial begins. For the first time, the amount of Mr. Cosby’s settlement with Ms. Constand is revealed: $3.38 million. And this time, the judge allows five women to testify that Mr. Cosby assaulted them in ways similar to how Ms. Constand says she was attacked. In the first trial, only one other woman was permitted to take the stand.
June 17, 2017
Mr. Cosby’s first trial ends in a mistrial after jurors remain deadlocked following six days of deliberations.
Dec. 30, 2015
Mr. Cosby is arrested on charges of aggravated indecent assault. Based on the timing described by Ms. Constand, the charges come just before the expiration of the 12-year statute of limitations for the charge.