Cosby was found guilty of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, an employee at his alma mater Temple University, in his home in 2004 after drugging her with unidentified pills. Constand’s allegations were the only ones against Cosby that were not too old to allow for criminal charges.
Reaction was swift on social media, with many women involved in the #MeToo movement expressing horror at the decision.
“THIS is why women do not come forward,” writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused former US president Donald Trump of raping her decades ago, wrote on Twitter. Trump has denied her claim.
But Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, celebrated the ruling for correcting “a miscarriage of justice”.
The Montgomery County district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The court’s majority found that a state prosecutor, Bruce Castor, struck a deal with Cosby’s attorneys in 2005 to not bring criminal charges.
As a result, Cosby was unable to avoid testifying as part of a civil lawsuit that Constand brought against him, since defendants can only refuse to testify when faced with criminal prosecution.
His sworn deposition, which a judge unsealed in 2015, eventually led a new district attorney, Kevin Steele, to charge Cosby later that year, just days before the statute of limitations was set to expire.
That prosecution, the court found, essentially amounted to reneging on Castor’s earlier promise not to charge Cosby.
“In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor DAs to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights,” Justice David Wecht wrote for the majority. “There is only one remedy that can completely restore Cosby to the status quo ante. He must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred.”
One dissenting justice said Cosby should stay in prison, while two others said it was wrong to bar prosecutors from retrying him, though without relying on the tainted evidence.
“So drastic a step merely increases to an intolerable degree interference with the public interest in having the guilty brought to book,” Associate Justice Kevin Dougherty wrote.
A mid-level appeals court had said the deposition testimony was admissible to illustrate Cosby’s “unique sexual assault playbook” for drugging and assaulting women.
Wecht, however, said Cosby was forced to give that testimony only after Castor said he would not be prosecuted for it, and a retrial even without that testimony could not restore the rights Cosby gave up by having to testify against himself.
Castor made national headlines in February as a member of Trump’s legal defence team during Trump’s impeachment trial in the US Senate. The former prosecutor delivered a rambling opening statement that drew sharp criticism from several senators, including Republican supporters of Trump.
In an interview, Castor said his deal with Cosby was the only way to ensure he would pay some sort of penalty via a civil lawsuit.
“I feel I made the right decision in 2005, and I still do,” he said.
Cosby’s first trial ended with a hung jury in 2017, when jurors could not reach a unanimous decision on his culpability. But he was found guilty at a second trial, after the judge, Steven O’Neill, allowed prosecutors to call five prior accusers – four more than in the first trial.
Armed with those witnesses, prosecutors argued that Cosby’s assault of Constand was a well-rehearsed offence he had honed over decades: he befriended younger women, acting as a mentor, only to sexually assault them, often with the help of drugs.
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