The overturning of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction was on legal grounds that do not necessarily determine his innocence or guilt, but in actuality center on an agreement made between his legal team and the original prosecutor who forced him to testify in a civil trial.
Cosby, 83, was convicted of sexual assault in 2018, accused of drugging and raping Andrea Constand, a one-time protégé of the comedian. He was sentenced to three to ten-years in prison, but always maintained his innocence, going as far as refusing to take classes offered to convicted sex offenders, which could have helped him earn parole.
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However, in a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, justices felt that the agreement forged by former Montgomery County, Pa. District Attorney Bruce Castor to prevent any criminal prosecution of Cosby in exchange for his civil deposition was in fact binding. It in fact should have prevented him from being prosecuted later, thus triggering a vacating of his conviction.
“Seeking ‘some measure of justice’ for Constand, D.A. Castor decided that the Commonwealth would decline to prosecute Cosby for the incident involving Constand, thereby allowing Cosby to be forced to testify in a subsequent civil action, under penalty of perjury, without the benefit of his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination,” wrote Justice David N. Wecht in his 79-page opinion. “Unable to invoke any right not to testify in the civil proceedings, Cosby relied upon the district attorney’s declination and proceeded to provide four sworn depositions.
“During those depositions, Cosby made several incriminating statements. D.A. Castor’s successors did not feel bound by his decision, and decided to prosecute Cosby notwithstanding that prior undertaking,” Wecht continued. “The fruits of Cosby’s reliance upon D.A. Castor’s decision Cosby’s sworn inculpatory testimony were then used by D.A. Castor’s successors against Cosby at Cosby’s criminal trial.”
In short, the agreement between Castor, who represented former president Donald Trump in his impeachment trial earlier this year, and Cosby’s legal team meant that the following prosecutor, Kevin Steele, should not have charged him.
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But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas G. Saylor disagreed that Castor’s announcement was necessarily binding.
“I read the operative language — “District Attorney Castor declines to authorize the filing of criminal charges in connection with this matter,” Saylor wrote, “as a conventional public announcement of a present exercise of prosecutorial discretion by the temporary occupant of the elected office of district attorney that would in no way be binding upon his own future decision-making processes, let alone those of his successor.”
Attorney Tammy Allison, a federal executive clemency expert, in explaining the details, said that Cosby’s overturning stems from the 2005 agreement between Castor and Cosby where he was told there would be no charges against him.
But despite the procedural mistake made by Castor, Allison says circumstances like this do happen in the courts and it speaks to changes that the criminal justice system has long needed.
“This is why I personally call out the urgent need for reform in the criminal justice system,” said Allison, who is also a former Justice Department senior attorney and former prosecutor. “I think it only adds confusion for the public and creates a lack of trust in the criminal justice system.”
Dmitriy Shakhnevich, adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City says that although there was not necessarily a written agreement between the two parties, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court felt that Steele was obligated to honor it.
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“The agreement that the prosecutors gave was so important that the court said we can’t let this conviction stand,” said Shakhnevich, who noted that an overturning like this would be extremely rare under circumstances like these. “So this was overturned purely on legal grounds, it doesn’t mean he was not guilty.
Shakhnevich also said that because of the decision made by the high court, Cosby cannot be retried and that the possibility of prosecutors taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court are slim to none.
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“The basis for the reversal is that it’s the agreement that governs, so you can’t ever try him again,” he said. “If this was overturned on the grounds that a witness came forward and said they lied on the stand, they could retry the case but if the high court of the state says it’s a no go then you can’t retry this.”
Cosby was also accused of sexual assault by dozens of other women, but he could not be prosecuted on those allegations due to state statutes of limitations.