the law

All Your Questions About Bill Cosby’s Overturned Verdict, Answered

Bill Cosby outside Montgomery County Court House in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in April 2018. Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s been one month since Bill Cosby was denied parole for refusing to attend prison workshops for sex offenders, and now the 83-year-old comedian is walking free. After Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned Cosby’s three felony charges of aggravated indecent assault, there are a lot of questions about what happened, and how the latest decision could impact future cases in the era of Me Too.

Here’s what we know:

What just happened?
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Cosby’s 2019 felony conviction, ruling that a “non-prosecution agreement” with a previous prosecutor should have prevented him from ever actually standing trial. There was also the issue of the former so-called “prior bad act witnesses” who testified in Cosby’s second trial. His attorneys successfully argued that they unfairly prejudiced the jury.

The court specifically said in its 79-page opinion that “the moment that Cosby was charged criminally, he was harmed,” adding, “He must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred.”

And that means what? 
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed Cosby’s conviction, allowing him to leave prison as a free man. He is no longer required to file as a sexually violent predator on the sex offender registry.

What was Cosby accused of in the first place?
Andrea Constand, a former employee of Temple University, accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her in his suburban Philadelphia home in 2004. She testified that the comedian gave her blue pills of unknown origin, and that after she drifted in and out of consciousness, Cosby assaulted her sexually. She claimed that Cosby was evasive when she questioned him about what happened.

How did we get to this latest decision by the court?
After Cosby was convicted on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to three-to-ten years in state prison, his defense team filed an appeal, arguing that former Montgomery County district attorney Bruce Castor had agreed to not file criminal charges if Cosby provided a sworn deposition in a civil case that Constand had filed prior to the criminal case. In those depositions, Cosby admitted to furnishing drugs, specifically quaaludes, to women. And he admitted to being sexually involved with Constand.

Cosby was ultimately convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Constand, a conviction the lower court upheld in 2019. As a result, Cosby’s lawyers sought an appeal at the state level, arguing that Castor’s agreement with Cosby, which they said precluded him from being able to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights during the depositions, coupled with the prior bad act witnesses in the second trial, were grounds for overturning the verdict.

It’s important to note that the depositions Cosby gave about drugs and women in 2005 were used as evidence in both the first trial, which ended in a hung jury, and the second trial, in which he was ultimately convicted of three felonies. Because Castor removed the threat of criminal prosecution if Cosby agreed to making the depositions, the comedian’s attorneys successfully established that Cosby wasn’t able to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and therefore was unable to defend himself against the criminal charges.

The court agreed with Cosby’s legal team, saying that the depositions (and specifically Cosby’s own testimony under oath) ultimately allowed prosecutors to draw a line between Cosby giving women drugs and the experience Constand said she had with him involving pills. At no time, Cosby’s lawyers argued, did the comedian expect that his sworn testimony in the civil case would ever see the light of day, let alone in criminal court.

Why didn’t the DA prosecute Cosby initially?
Castor would later testify that he made the decision to not prosecute Cosby criminally because of what he called “defects in the case,” notably that Constand waited to come forward. He was also concerned that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.

In Castor’s view, Constand’s delay both diminished the reliability of any recollections and undermined the investigator’s efforts to collect forensic evidence. He also said that he found inconsistencies in Constand’s statements.

At the time, Castor concluded in a press statement that “there was insufficient credible and admissible evidence upon which any charge against Cosby related to the Constand incident could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Did Castor actually investigate Cosby?
According to court records, a search was done of Cosby’s home outside of Philadelphia where Constand said the incident took place, and Cosby provided written answers to questions from investigators. The DA’s office also looked into other accusations against Cosby by other women. These claims were also deemed unreliable at the time. Overall, it’s estimated that the investigation took about one month.

What happened after the DA refused to prosecute Cosby?
In 2005*, Constand filed a lawsuit against Cosby in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern State of Pennsylvania that led Cosby to testify under oath in several of these controversial depositions, during which he admitted to having a romantic interest in Constand and suggested that they had consensually engaged in sexual activity three different times, including the night she accused him of drugging and assaulting her.

What happened to that lawsuit?
Constand settled with Cosby for $3.38 million.

Okay, so who charged Cosby criminally?
Castor’s successors reopened the case and charged Cosby in 2015, just days before the 12-year statute of limitations was set to expire.

Then what happened?
There were two trials. The first, in 2017, ended after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The second jury found Cosby guilty of all three counts of felony indecent assault, and he was sentenced to state prison for between three-and-ten years. Cosby’s legal team filed several post-sentence motions seeking a new trial that were denied.

What was the big difference between the trials?
Most notably, five women who accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them in the 1980s testified in the second trial. Despite Cosby’s legal team’s best efforts to prevent this evidence from being presented, the court ultimately decided to allow it, saying it demonstrated a pattern of behavior consistent with Constand’s accusations. It should be noted that whether to allow these types of witnesses can vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania, it is legal to call this type of witness.

How did this case end up at the state’s highest court?
Cosby’s lawyers appealed after the Superior Court upheld his conviction in 2019, concluding that there was no expectation that Cosby would be immune from criminal prosecution. His lawyers’ next and final appeal was granted just one year later. They argued that both the testimonies of the five women in the second trial and Cosby’s own testimony to using quaaludes with women, without being able to exercise his Fifth Amendment right, prejudiced the jury. They also cited the former DA’s agreement to not prosecute Cosby if he was deposed under oath.

How could this impact future cases? 
Because Cosby was the first celebrity to be prosecuted in the era of Me Too, there will ultimately be a lot of supposition about how this decision could impact future cases, perhaps most notably whether prior bad act witnesses will be allowed in sexual-assault cases and, if they are used, if they can be used to reverse a verdict on technicalities.

For some, Cosby’s guilty verdict signaled a new era in which allegations of sexual abuse by powerful men would be taken seriously by the court. Of note is that Cosby’s first trial (the one that ended in a hung jury) actually took place before Harvey Weinstein was accused of misconduct. His second trial came in the midst of Weinstein’s own exposure and ultimate downfall. At the time, his lawyers argued that the social climate could unfairly contribute to convicting Cosby.

For others, the verdict’s reversal is cause for celebration. Phylicia Rashad, the actress who played Cosby’s wife on the hit television show The Cosby Show, immediately tweeted her support: “FINALLY!!!!” Rashad, who was recently named dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, added, “A terrible wrong is being righted - a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

Have other women come forward with accusations against Cosby?
Dozens of women have accused Cosby of assaulting them.

Did Cosby ever confess to any of these accusations?
No. He has long denied all accusations against him.

Could he be tried again?
The court barred any possibility of a retrial, so he can’t be tried on these same charges. He could, however, potentially face new charges if a credible accuser comes forward within the statute of limitations, which can vary by state.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Constand filed a lawsuit against Cosby in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern State of Pennsylvania in 2015. The suit was filed in 2005, and the story has been updated to reflect that.

Your Questions About Cosby’s Overturned Verdict, Answered