Bill Cosby’s sex assault conviction overturned by court

Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned Bill Cosby’s sex assault conviction Wednesday after finding an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented him from being charged in the case.

Cosby has served more than two years of a three- to 10-year sentence at a state prison near Philadelphia. He had vowed to serve all 10 years rather than acknowledge any remorse over the 2004 encounter with accuser Andrea Constand.

He was charged in late 2015, when a prosecutor armed with newly unsealed evidence — Cosby’s damaging deposition from her lawsuit — arrested him days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired.

The court said that District Attorney Kevin Steele, who made the decision to arrest Cosby, was obligated to stand by his predecessor’s promise not to charge Cosby when he later gave potentially incriminating testimony in Constand’s civil suit. There was no evidence that promise was ever put in writing.

Justice David Wecht, writing for a split court, said Cosby had relied on the former prosecutor’s decision not to charge him when he later gave potentially incriminating testimony in the Constand’s civil suit.

They said that overturning the conviction, and barring any further prosecution, “is the only remedy that comports with society’s reasonable expectations of its elected prosecutors and our criminal justice system.”

The 83-year-old Cosby, who was once beloved as “America’s Dad,” was convicted of drugging and molesting the Temple University employee at his suburban estate.

The trial judge had allowed just one other accuser to testify at Cosby’s first trial, when the jury deadlocked. However, he then allowed five other accusers to testify at the retrial about their experiences with Cosby in the 1980s.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that testimony tainted the trial, even though a lower appeals court had found it appropriate to show a signature pattern of drugging and molesting women.

Cosby was the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era, so the reversal could make prosecutors wary of calling other accusers in similar cases. The law on prior bad act testimony varies by state, though, and the ruling only holds sway in Pennsylvania.

The justices voiced concern not just about sex assault cases, but what they saw as the judiciary’s increasing tendency to allow testimony that crosses the line into character attacks. The law allows the testimony only in limited cases, including to show a crime pattern so specific it serves to identify the perpetrator.

In New York, the judge presiding over last year’s trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case had sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. He is now facing separate charges in California.

In Cosby’s case, one of his appellate lawyers said prosecutors put on vague evidence about the uncharged conduct, including Cosby’s own recollections in his deposition about giving women alcohol or quaaludes before sexual encounters.

“The presumption of innocence just didn’t exist for him,” Jennifer Bonjean, the lawyer, argued to the court in December.

In May, Cosby was denied paroled after refusing to participate in sex offender programs during his nearly three years in state prison. He has long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it means serving the full 10-year sentence.

This is the first year he was eligible for parole under the three- to 10-year sentence handed down after his 2018 conviction.

Cosby spokesperson Andrew Wyatt called the parole board decision “appalling.”

Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and “family man” persona to manipulate young women, holding himself out as a mentor before betraying them.

Cosby, a groundbreaking Black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at $400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry. His trademark clean comedy and homespun wisdom fueled popular TV shows, books and standup acts.

He fell from favor in his later years as he lectured the Black community about family values, but was attempting a comeback when he was arrested.

“There was a built-in level of trust because of his status in the entertainment industry and because he held himself out as a public moralist,” Assistant District Attorney Adrienne Jappe, of suburban Montgomery County, argued to the justices.

Cosby had invited Constand to an estate he owns in Pennsylvania the night she said he drugged and sexually assaulted her.

Constand, a former professional basketball player who worked at his alma mater, went to police a year later. The other accusers knew Cosby through the entertainment industry and did not go to police.

Huge Score for Bill Cosby pre-trial in sex-crime case: No parade of accusers. 

Bill Cosby should be celebrating Friday: There won’t be a parade of accusers at his trial.
When he goes before a jury on criminal sexual assault charges in suburban Philadelphia, set for June, prosecutors will be able to call only one accuser — out of a total of 13 sought by prosecutors — besides the complainant in the case, Judge Steven O’Neill ruled in an order Friday.

O’Neill said in his order that he carefully balanced the probative value of such testimony versus its prejudicial impact on Cosby and concluded that one accuser would be allowed to testify at the trial.
“It’s a huge win for Cosby,” declared Stuart Slotnick, a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia who has been following the case.
“It’s a mixed decision,” says Dennis McAndrews, a former prosecutor who now practices in suburban Philadelphia. “The positive for the defense is that they only have to test the credibility of two people as opposed to a what I consider a critical mass of four or more.
“Once you get four or more, the optics and the psychology of attacking that many people becomes dramatically different — it’s much easier for a jury to disbelieve two rather than four or more,” McAndrews says.
Andrew Wyatt, spokesman for Cosby’s legal team, said there would be no comment until at least Monday, after a scheduled hearing on whether to change the venue for the trial due to pre-trial publicity.
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele issued a statement that attempted to cast the ruling in a positive light.
“This ruling is important as the jury will now be allowed to assess evidence that is relevant to establishing a common plan, scheme and design of sexual abuse,” he said.
Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent sexual assault stemming from a 2004 encounter at his nearby home with Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee whom he had mentored. She said he drugged and molested her; he said the encounter was consensual.
But Steele did not bring the charges until December 2015, and ever since the teams of defense lawyers and prosecutors have been arguing in multiple pretrial hearings over various issues, including whether Steele can call up to 13 other women who say Cosby did to them — drugged and/or raped them — what he’s accused of doing to Constand.
Now prosecutors will be able to call only one woman, known only as “Kacey” in media accounts and “Prior Alleged Victim Six” in court documents, to testify about Cosby’s alleged “prior bad acts.” She tells a similar story to Constand: In 1996, she was 29 and worked for Cosby’s agent. The two were friends and when she went to his hotel room to talk about her career, he offered her wine and a pill. She passed out but recalls being sexually assaulted on his bed.
“The prosecution wanted to parade in an army of witnesses saying that what happened to (Constand) happened to me and thereby infer that he must have committed a crime in (the Constand) case,” Slotnick says. “They want to gloss over the major deficiencies in the complainant’s story by focusing on another case…When they bring in only one person, it’s much easier for the defense to say this is a copycat allegation, he’s a celebrity target of this kind of thing.”
Cosby’s lawyers had argued that multiple accusers were being “paraded” before the media over the last two years by celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred and other lawyers before their accounts were vetted by police. Allred said in a statement Friday she represents Prior Alleged Victim 6.
“We have seen a barrage of new accusers claiming, ‘Me, too,'” Cosby defense lawyer Angela Agrusa said at a hearing last year.
On the other hand, says McAndrew, the trial will still feature more than one accuser. “If you have two credible witnesses whose veracity is not successfully challenged, it’s much easier to convict than (if there is) just one.”
Steele could appeal this ruling but it would be an uphill battle, McAndrews added, because trial judges in Pennsylvania have broad discretion in deciding such matters.
The dozen other witnesses prosecutors sought to call are only a fraction of the five dozen women who have recently accused Cosby of drugging and/or raping them in episodes dating back to the 1960s. The Constand case is the only one to result in criminal charges because the statute of limitations on rape is comparatively lengthier in Pennsylvania than in other states where women have accused Cosby.
Cosby is also fighting civil defamation lawsuits filed by some of his accusers.