[Warning: This article discusses rape and sexual assault.]
As we all know, Bill Cosby was found guilty in 2018 of three counts of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The accusations that surfaced around the case – and there were many of them – were horrific, particularly in reference to such a (previously) lovable American icon.
Perhaps the most shocking news about this case, however, came out only last month: Cosby was released from prison on a technicality.
Understandably, sexual assault survivors and other advocates have protested the finding, claiming it could lead to a dangerous backsliding of the long-overdue progress for the #MeToo movement. But what about the legality of the decision? Does it have any merit? And what does this mean for other survivors?
Read on for a summary from former federal prosecutor, Shan Wu.
How did Bill Cosby’s release come about?
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court threw out Cosby’s conviction on June 30, 2021, as he was approaching the end of his third year of a 10-year sentence for drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004.
The Court ruled that the prosecutor who brought the case and arrested Cosby in 2015 was bound by a previous agreement that his predecessor made when Constand filed a civil suit in 2005. The agreement apparently stated that Cosby would not be charged if he gave a deposition — although this agreement was never put in writing.
Cosby had relied on this agreement, the Court stated, when he decided to give his potentially incriminating testimony in the civil case. Therefore, the prosecutor in 2015, Kevin Steele, was also bound by this agreement and could not use Cosby’s own testimony against him.
Is there any merit to this overturned conviction?
First and foremost, it’s important to note that this is a devastating blow to survivors. There’s nothing worse than having the convictions overturned.
Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision is a legally defensible one — and, truthfully, the red flags were always there in this case. Plus, the lengthy, thoughtful opinion by the Court coupled with the fact that this is not the kind of case the United States Supreme Court would likely consider means that his likely the last word on Cosby’s conviction.
A larger question might be why Cosby’s case wasn’t tried as a criminal case back in 2005.
Shan second guessed the decision by the prosecutor, Bruce Castor, at the time, and that he shouldn’t have offered Cosby immunity for his testimony.
A criminal prosecutor’s job, says Shan, is to decide whether to charge someone criminally or not — not create some sort of outside arrangement in a civil case.
Ultimately, Castor’s decision doomed the case against Cosby.
What does the Cosby case teach us moving forward?
For the survivors of this specific case, the sad truth is that this case seems to be over. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania made an informed decision and barred further prosecution.
However, this does not mean that the #MeToo fight should end. On the contrary, many sexual assault survivor advocates are discussing how this case teaches us now more than ever, that survivors must come forward with their stories.
For prosecutors, this case serves as an important lesson. Shan argues that it is not enough to win a conviction — you must protect that conviction, too. This effort should start long before an appeal, as it did in this case.
Steele and his team had known about Cosby’s agreement and nonetheless moved forward with the arrest and trial. Unfortunately, the vetting and the anticipation that should have protected this conviction was just not achieved, and Cosby was able to walk out of prison a free man.