Why Was Bill Cosby Set Free?
Most of you have probably seen by now that Bill Cosby’s conviction for the sexual assault of Andrea Constand was overturned by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Many people are asking why Bill Cosby was set free. The court’s majority opinion alone spans 79 pages, but we’ve pared it down to its essence. The court’s decision is interesting not just because the court found that Cosby was wrongfully convicted, but also because the court held that Cosby could not even be retried, which is rare to see from an appellate court.
The decision stems from a violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fifth Amendment contains several rights, including one that prohibits the government (including the courts) from forcing you to make statements that may incriminate yourself. When District Attorney Bruce Castor first investigated Constand’s allegations of sexual assault against Cosby in 2005, he determined that he would probably not be able to prove that Cosby was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as required to convict him. But Constand could still sue Cosby in civil court for the sexual assault, so the D.A. made a compromise: his office issued a press release stating that it would never prosecute Cosby in criminal court. Now, because there was no longer the threat of a criminal case against Cosby, he could not invoke the Fifth Amendment in his civil case. Cosby was then forced to testify in the civil case and made incriminating statements, including that he had given Quaaludes to other women he wanted to sleep with, and the case ultimately settled with Constand winning over $3 million.
Things changed when a new District Attorney took over. She felt that she was not bound by the first D.A.’s decision and decided to reopen the criminal case against Cosby in 2015. With the help of the incriminating statements Cosby had made in the civil case a decade earlier, Cosby was successfully convicted of aggravated indecent assault.
Which leads us to the state supreme court’s decision overturning the conviction. Because Cosby was compelled to testify and made incriminating statements in the civil case due to the prior D.A.’s announcement that his office would never prosecute Cosby, the D.A.’s office was bound to honor that promise so that Cosby’s Fifth Amendment rights weren’t thwarted.
Cosby’s Case a ‘Special One’
What is unusual is how the court decided to correct the violation. Ordinarily in a criminal case, if a defendant’s rights are violated in the trial court, then the appellate court will order a new trial and prohibit the prosecutor from using any evidence that came from the violation—here, that would mean preventing the D.A.’s office from using Cosby’s incriminating statements from the civil case. But the court concluded that this was a special case where simply excluding Cosby’s statements would not completely correct the violation. First, Cosby was not allowed to defend himself by invoking the Fifth Amendment in the civil case, and he was required to pay millions to Constand—having a new criminal trial without the incriminating statements would not fix that. Second, Cosby and the prior D.A. had essentially reached an agreement that Cosby would not be prosecuted at all if he testified in the civil case, so another trial would result in Cosby being forced to uphold his end of the bargain while not requiring the same thing from the prosecutor. Therefore, the court concluded that the only fair decision was to enforce the promise of the D.A.’s office to never prosecute Cosby, and the court ordered that he be set free.
Does this mean that the court found that Bill Cosby is innocent?
No, the ruling just means that Cosby must be released and could not be put on trial for the crime.