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Bill Cosby released from prison after sexual assault conviction is vacated by Pennsylvania Supreme Court

The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia explains the decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn Bill Cosby’s conviction of sexual assault. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Bill Cosby walked out of a prison in Pennsylvania as a free man Wednesday after nearly three years behind bars when the state’s highest court ruled that he was wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting a woman.

Cosby’s release was a sudden and shocking turn in the saga of a man who had once been one of America’s most beloved entertainers but who has faced dozens of assault allegations in the past two decades. His conviction in 2018 followed one of the most high-profile trials of the #MeToo era.

In contrast to the tumult that surrounded his trial and conviction, Cosby was released from a state prison in Collegeville, Pa., shortly before 2:30 p.m., with no members of the news media in position yet to record it.

“I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence,” Cosby tweeted Wednesday night. “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.”

One of his lawyers, Brian W. Perry, said Cosby, 83, was picked up by his spokesman and driven to his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham, where he met with his legal team.

“I’ve been dealing with Mr. Cosby on a regular basis for over two years, and he has never been anything but positive,” Perry said. “He always believed this would be the outcome.”

Billy Cosby was released from prison on June 30 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated his sexual assault conviction. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Reuters)

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor’s decision in 2005 that he would not pursue a criminal case against Cosby prompted Cosby to utter self-incriminating statements at his civil trial — which a subsequent prosecutor then used to convict him. That violated Cosby’s Fifth Amendment rights, wrote Justice David Wecht.

Wecht said that Kevin Steele, the current district attorney of Montgomery County, Pa., was obligated to stand by his predecessor Bruce Castor’s promise not to charge Cosby. The court deemed Steele’s violation so “vast” that it ruled his office may not put Cosby on trial for those charges again.

Cosby was brought to trial in April 2018 after at least 60 women had accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting them. The allegations dated back as far as the 1960s, when Cosby was a rising young comedian and Emmy-winning co-star of the TV program “I Spy.” Cosby’s early stardom made him a breakthrough figure, one of the first Black performers to achieve mass popularity.

He went on to star in a long series of humorous television commercials, write best-selling books dispensing fatherly advice and headline other TV shows. The peak of his national acclaim was between 1984 and 1992, the years in which he appeared as Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” on NBC. The sitcom dominated TV ratings and helped revive the ailing network.

His trial centered on allegations by just one woman, Andrea Constand, who accused Cosby of assault in 2004, when she worked for Temple University, Cosby’s alma mater. She testified that Cosby, who served on the Philadelphia school’s board of trustees, had given her a pill that made her unable to control her limbs, and that he violated her at his Cheltenham home.

Cosby was convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault and began a sentence of three to 10 years in September 2018. After a lower appeals court upheld the conviction in 2019, his team appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing, among other reasons, that it had been unfair for five additional accusers who were uninvolved in the criminal case to testify in the trial.

Castor declined to charge Cosby with assault in 2005, after which Constand sued Cosby for defamation. The civil case reached a settlement in 2006, and a confidentiality agreement prevented both sides from discussing details. In 2015, a federal judge unsealed documents from the case, including a court deposition in which Cosby acknowledged he had obtained quaaludes to use on women with whom he wanted to have sex. He did not, however, admit to any criminal activity.

Steele, who had defeated Castor in 2015 — in part as a result of Castor’s decision not to prosecute Cosby — reopened the criminal case against the entertainer in 2015. Castor was called forward as a witness by Cosby’s legal team the next year. He told the judge Cosby “was not getting prosecuted at all — ever — as far as I was concerned,” and added that he believed he “had the power to make such a statement.”

Cosby’s team argued that the criminal charges against him violated a verbal “non-prosecution” agreement Castor had made a decade prior. Prosecutors denied the existence of such an agreement. Asked by the judge why the deal hadn’t been made in writing, Castor reportedly responded that “it was unnecessary because I concluded there was no way the case [against Cosby] would get any better.”

Constand settled a defamation lawsuit with Castor in 2019. Earlier this year, Castor ​represented former president Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial.

In a statement, Steele expressed frustration that Cosby “now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime.” The prosecutor added that he hopes the decision will not discourage victims from reporting sexual assault and pledged to keep pursuing such cases.

“We still believe that no one is above the law — including those who are rich, famous and powerful,” Steele said.

Castor, meanwhile, expressed a sense of vindication.

“The Supreme Court has now ruled that the prosecution and the trial judge were wrong, and I was right. It’s obvious the court agrees with what I did,” he said in an interview. “This is a victory for the Constitution, not necessarily for Mr. Cosby. He won’t be able to get nearly three years of his life back and the stress of two trials and the impact of that on his health. But it does say the system works.”

Cosby’s legal issues were bewildering to many because of his carefully crafted image and cultural identity. His stand-up comedy and writing had a universal quality, stressing family and optimism despite economic hardship. “The Cosby Show,” his widely loved sitcom, portrayed a Black upper-middle-class family in the same familiar and heartwarming ways that sitcoms had long portrayed White families. Some later drew a straight line between the fictional Huxtables to the real-life Obama family, saying it laid the foundation for a Black man to be elected president.

On Wednesday, actress Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s on-screen wife, Clair Huxtable, reacted to his overturned conviction on Twitter: “FINALLY!!!!” she wrote. “A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

But the reaction from Cosby’s accusers was quite the opposite.

Eden Tirl, an actress who landed a guest role on “The Cosby Show” at age 22 and accused Cosby of whispering in her ear about “making love” and hugging her against her will, said she “just had my breath taken away” upon hearing the news of his release. Tirl, now 55 and an author, said Cosby “never would have been able to get away with this if he wasn’t a celebrity.”

Janice Baker-Kinney, a former Reno bartender who says she was drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby in May 1982, said she was “stunned” and “sick to my stomach” that Cosby “can go free over a ‘technicality.’”

Baker-Kinney, who now works as a sports production stage manager in Northern California, was one of the five Cosby accusers who testified at his second trial as “prior bad act witnesses” brought to the stand to assist prosecutors in establishing a pattern of alleged behavior. Shortly after the guilty verdict, she told The Washington Post that “my hands were shaking so much that I had to use two hands to pick up a cup of water.”

After the decision to release Cosby was announced Wednesday, Baker-Kinney cast blame on Castor, who she believes had sowed doubt by refusing to prosecute Cosby and issuing a news release saying there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge him.

“I blame Bruce Castor for sweeping this under the rug when he had the opportunity and the responsibility to bring charges when this first came to light,” Baker-Kinney said.

Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents more than two dozen women who have accused Cosby of sexual harassment or assault, said that despite Wednesday’s ruling, “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.”

Wednesday’s ruling raises questions about how much one prosecutor is obligated to the decisions made by his or her predecessor, according to one legal expert.

“The wrinkle in all this is the dispute about whether the agreement between the [first] prosecutor and Cosby’s lawyers is binding on the second prosecutor,” said Carissa Byrne Hessick, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Complicating matters further, she said, is that there was no formal agreement, like a plea bargain, but Castor did make statements that apparently led Cosby to offer the testimony that damned him.

The state supreme court, she said, essentially determined that “it’s not fair for the prosecution to make a different decision after Cosby relied on it.”

Perry, Cosby’s lawyer, echoed that sentiment. “No matter if you’re a celebrity or a normal person on the street, the system doesn’t work unless you treat all parties fairly,” he said.

“Mr. Cosby was not treated fairly, and ultimately the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania agreed. It does not matter what his socioeconomic status is, what matters is that the supreme court finally made the playing field level.”

In a brief appearance before reporters, Cosby — beaming and looking healthy in a T-shirt reading “Central 256” — stood silently beside his legal team, holding the hand of one of his lawyers, Jennifer Bonjean.

“He is extremely happy to be home,” Bonjean said. “He looks forward to reuniting with his wife and his children. And obviously, this has been a hard few years for this entire family. It’s really a blessing for him. He says his heart is beating really fast and he’s happy to be home.”