At least 60 women had publicly accused Bill Cosby of assaulting them by the time the former television star was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison in 2018. After serving just a portion of that time at a maximum-security facility outside Philadelphia, however, Cosby is suddenly free on a technicality. On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the 83-year-old's sexual assault conviction, ruling that he was denied a fair trial three years ago. Cosby was out of prison by 2 PM Eastern time.
His was the first high-profile sexual assault trial to play out in the shadow of the #MeToo movement. Despite the sheer number of women who said that Cosby targeted them and displayed repetitive predatory behavior over several decades — most often drugging and sexually assaulting his unconscious victims — the case that put him behind bars hinged on just one woman's experience. Cosby was arrested in 2015 on charges of drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs 11 years prior. Authorities nabbed him days before the statute of limitations on the case ran out.
Legal technicalities made it impossible for Cosby's earlier victims to seek justice through official channels. But when he was sentenced, many of them expressed joy and relief. "My heart is beating out of my chest at the moment," said Janice Dickinson, a former model who'd told the court that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982. "This is fair and just," she told the New York Times in 2018. "I am victorious." In her victim impact statement to the court, Constand said of Cosby's crimes, "We may never know the full extent of his double life as a sexual predator, but his decades-long reign of terror as a serial rapist is over."
Cosby's case was reconsidered as the result of an appeal, which partly asked the court to factor in "the impact of #MeToo hysteria." A lower court upheld the trial verdict in 2019, but in late 2020, Pennsylvania's highest court agreed to consider the case. In their opinion, the judges cited a “non-prosecution agreement” that Cosby struck with former Montgomery County district attorney, Bruce Castor Jr. — who later became Trump's impeachment lawyer.
Basically, Castor made a deal with Cosby, saying he wouldn't be criminally charged for the sexual assault claimed by Constand, reasoning it'd keep Cosby from pleading the Fifth Amendment in a civil case. In his testimony, Cosby admitted to drugging women with quaaludes to coerce them into sex, thinking he wouldn't be held responsible for his confessed crimes. But Castor's successors reopened the case despite his promises and charged Cosby in 2015. His damning testimony played a key role in the trial that put him behind bars.
"In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor D.A.s to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights," the judges ruled. "No other conclusion comports with the principles of due process and fundamental fairness to which all aspects of our criminal justice system must adhere." They also declared Cosby's case can't be retried.
Cosby is hardly the average defendant or inmate, however. His immense wealth afforded him the privilege of paying a $1 million bail after he was charged with assaulting Constand. It also enabled him to hire high-powered lawyers to relentlessly argue his case and ultimately exploit a legal loophole to free him.
Those paying the biggest price for Cosby's release are his victims. Each woman who called out his predation committed a courageous act by challenging such a powerful Hollywood figure. At 83, Cosby may not be as dangerous a threat as he once was. His legacy is undoubtedly permanently tarnished, and he'll be remembered first and foremost as a rapist. But letting him walk free still sends the message that powerful men can do whatever they want and get away with it.
Proof of how fallible the legal system is could prevent other victims from exposing predators, because there's the sense it's worthless. Why suffer twice, first at the hands of an abuser only to get kicked around by the justice system? With the reality of statutes of limitations and legal loopholes, it seems the only solution is for women to band together and report abuse early and often. But that's magical thinking in a world that currently allows a rapist to confess his crimes, only to walk free because he was honest about being a monster.