Bill Cosby was released from prison after a Pennsylvania appeals court on Wednesday overturned his sexual assault conviction, undoing one of the highest-profile prosecutions to emerge amid the "Me Too" movement.
In a 4-3 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that evidence used to secure Cosby’s 2018 conviction violated his due process rights after prosecutors subjected the actor and comedian to what the court said effectively amounted to a bait-and-switch.
Cosby left the prison in Phoenix, Pa., on Wednesday afternoon, not long after the decision became public.
"I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence," he said in a brief statement posted on Twitter later Wednesday.
I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence.— Bill Cosby (@BillCosby) June 30, 2021
Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal. Special thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for upholding the rule of law. #BillCosby pic.twitter.com/bxELvJWDe5
Although the majority said its 79-page opinion was grounded in notions of fundamental fairness, critics blasted the ruling as an affront to sexual assault survivors.
“THIS is why women do not come forward,” tweeted E. Jean Carroll, who says she was sexually assaulted by former President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE and former media executive Les Moonves. Both men deny the allegations.
The ruling in Cosby’s case traces back to a 2005 decision by then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor, who determined there was insufficient evidence to convict Cosby for the assault. Castor then promised not to charge Cosby if the comedian agreed to testify in a civil suit brought by his alleged victim, Andrea Constand.
But Castor’s successor as district attorney, Risa Vetri Ferman, declined to honor the agreement. Instead, Ferman filed charges against Cosby — and used Cosby’s own testimony against him to help secure a guilty verdict.
In its Wednesday opinion, the majority ruled that denying Cosby the benefit of Castor’s non-prosecution decision would be “an affront to fundamental fairness.”
“No mere changing of the guard strips that circumstance of its inequity,” the majority wrote.
The three dissenting justices cited various grounds for their opposition, including that the majority’s move to vacate Cosby’s conviction was an ill-suited remedy.
“Here, although Cosby detrimentally relied on Castor’s inducement, we can return him to the position he enjoyed prior to being forced to surrender his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by simply suppressing the evidence derived from the civil depositions at which he testified,” wrote Justice Kevin Dougherty, who was joined by another justice.
“We should not use Castor’s ‘blunder’ to place Cosby in a better position than he otherwise would have been in by forever barring his prosecution,” Dougherty added.
Attorney Lisa Bloom said on Twitter that the three Cosby accusers whom she represents are “disgusted that he is a free man today.”
“He is not released because he is innocent,” Bloom wrote. “He is released because a prosecutor promised him years ago that he would not be brought to justice, without even making a deal for him to do time.”
Castor is likely most well-known for being part of Trump’s defense during his second impeachment trial earlier this year.
The majority, for its part, said the circumstances presented in the case were "rare, if not entirely unique."
Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor, emphasized that the ruling should not be viewed as an exoneration of Cosby.
"This in no way exonerates Cosby from his monstrous crimes, but due process matters," she tweeted. "A prosecutor can’t promise not to charge him, induce reliance on the promise and then use his subsequent statements to charge him. Blame former DA & Trump atty Bruce Castor."
This decision comes one month after Cosby was denied parole on the basis of a “negative recommendation made by the department of corrections.”
The justices concluded that Cosby had suffered "far greater" due to the testimonies given at his two trials and rebuffed a suggestion that a third criminal trial be conducted. Instead, they wrote that overturning his conviction would be the only action that would suffice.
"A contrary result would be patently untenable. It would violate long-cherished principles of fundamental fairness," they wrote. "It would be antithetical to, and corrosive of, the integrity and functionality of the criminal justice system that we strive to maintain.
"For these reasons, Cosby’s convictions and judgment of sentence are vacated, and he is discharged."
Updated at 6:31 p.m.