PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) -- Bill Cosby has been freed from prison after Pennsylvania's highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction Wednesday. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that they found an agreement with a previous prosecutor that prevented him from being charged in the case.
The country watched -- some cheering, some dismayed -- as Cosby was shackled and lead into prison more than two years ago. Just this afternoon, he was released from the State Correctional Institution Phoenix with little fanfare
Cosby has served more than two years of a three- to 10-year sentence at a state prison near Philadelphia. He had vowed to serve all 10 years rather than acknowledge any remorse over the 2004 encounter with accuser Andrea Constand.
The opinions of the court blasted light on a press release issued by former District Attorney Bruce Castor more than 15 years ago. The document essentially promised that Cosby would not be prosecuted.
Years later, Cosby then testified in a deposition and did not take the Fifth Amendment. He made incriminating statements, and those statements became the foundation of prosecutions against Cosby as it related to the accused indecent aggravated assault of Constand.
Legal experts say the prosecution was essentially a violation of a written contract between the DA's office and Cosby.
The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office released a statement on Cosby's release:
The majority decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court orders the release of William H. Cosby Jr. from state prison. He was found guilty by a jury and now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime. I want to commend Cosby's victim Andrea Constand for her bravery in coming forward and remaining steadfast throughout this long ordeal, as well as all of the other women who have shared similar experiences. My hope is that this decision will not dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims. Prosecutors in my office will continue to follow the evidence wherever and to whomever it leads. We still believe that no one is above the law—including those who are rich, famous and powerful.
The 83-year-old Cosby, who was once beloved as "America's Dad," was convicted of drugging and molesting Constand at his suburban estate.
Constand and her legal counsel released a statement on the court's ruling Wednesday evening.
"Today's majority decision regarding Bill Cosby is not only disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action.
On the one hand, the Court acknowledged that the former District Attorney's decision to not prosecute Mr. Cosby was not a formal immunity agreement and constituted at best a unilateral exercise of prosecutorial discretion not to prosecute at the time, but nevertheless precluded a future prosecution, which included additional evidence developed in the civil case. the Supreme Court acknowledged that it was bound by the lower court's credibility findings, including that Andrea Constand and her civil counsel, Dolores Troiani and Bebe Kivitz, were not privy to any discussions between the former prosecutor and Mr. Cosby or his then criminal counsel, let alone signatories to any agreement of any kind. We were not consulted or asked our thoughts by Mr. Castor concerning any agreements concerning immunity or anything, and we were not made aware if there were any such discussions. The press release had no meaning or significance to us in 2005 other than being a press release circulated by the then District Attorney.
Once again, we remain grateful to those women who came forward to tell their stores, to DA Kevin Steele and the excellent prosecutors who achieved a conviction at trial, despite the ultimate outcome which resulted from a procedural technicality, and we urge all victims to have their voices heard. We do not intend to make any further comment.
In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's opinion, the judges "do not question the discretion that is vested in prosecutors 'over whether charges should be brought in any given case,'" but rather the court examined if the prosecution performed within the bounds of due process.
Legal experts say the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's opinion reveals parts of the Cosby prosecution were braced on a legal house of cards. Prosecutors who took the legendary comedian and actor to trial twice say the ruling is an unfortunate technicality.
Cosby tweeted out a statement, maintaining his innocence and thanking supporters.
"I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence. Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal. Special thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for upholding the rule of law," he tweeted.
Cosby's return to his Elkins Park home was unceremonious in many ways but did inspire those passionate for and against the comedian to visit the property.
In a T-shirt ode to his Philadelphia high school, Central graduate Cosby returned from prison, yielding comment to his attorneys and representative.
"He said they was ringing his cell, they was just knocking on the walls the inmates, they said 'you're free! Get up! Get up.' And he was just so excited," spokesperson Andrew Wyatt said.
Nearly 60 women accused Cosby of sexual assault. Attorney Gloria Allred represented several of the women and says her heart breaks for them.
Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, took to social media after hearing the news Cosby would be released.
"FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted -- a miscarriage of justice is corrected," Rashad tweeted.
He was charged in late 2015, when a prosecutor armed with newly unsealed evidence — Cosby's damaging deposition from her lawsuit — arrested him days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired.
The trial judge had allowed just one other accuser to testify at Cosby's first trial, when the jury deadlocked. However, he then allowed five other accusers to testify at the retrial about their experiences with Cosby in the 1980s.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that testimony tainted the trial, even though a lower appeals court had found it appropriate to show a signature pattern of drugging and molesting women.
Cosby was the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era, so the reversal could make prosecutors wary of calling other accusers in similar cases. The law on prior bad act testimony varies by state, though, and the ruling only holds sway in Pennsylvania.
Prosecutors did not immediately say if they would appeal or seek to try Cosby for a third time.
The justices voiced concern not just about sex assault cases, but what they saw as the judiciary's increasing tendency to allow testimony that crosses the line into character attacks. The law allows the testimony only in limited cases, including to show a crime pattern so specific it serves to identify the perpetrator.
In New York, the judge presiding over last year's trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case had sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. He is now facing separate charges in California.
In Cosby's case, one of his appellate lawyers said prosecutors put on vague evidence about the uncharged conduct, including Cosby's own recollections in his deposition about giving women alcohol or quaaludes before sexual encounters.
"The presumption of innocence just didn't exist for him," Jennifer Bonjean, the lawyer, argued to the court in December.
In May, Cosby was denied paroled after refusing to participate in sex offender programs during his nearly three years in state prison. He has long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it means serving the full 10-year sentence.
This is the first year he was eligible for parole under the three- to 10-year sentence handed down after his 2018 conviction.
Cosby spokesperson Andrew Wyatt called the parole board decision "appalling."
Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and "family man" persona to manipulate young women, holding himself out as a mentor before betraying them.
Cosby, a groundbreaking Black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at $400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry. His trademark clean comedy and homespun wisdom fueled popular TV shows, books and standup acts.
He fell from favor in his later years as he lectured the Black community about family values, but was attempting a comeback when he was arrested.
"There was a built-in level of trust because of his status in the entertainment industry and because he held himself out as a public moralist," Assistant District Attorney Adrienne Jappe, of suburban Montgomery County, argued to the justices.
Cosby had invited Constand to an estate he owns in Pennsylvania the night she said he drugged and sexually assaulted her.
Constand, a former professional basketball player who worked at his alma mater, went to police a year later. The other accusers knew Cosby through the entertainment industry and did not go to police.
CBS3's Joe Holden, Natasha Brown and Alexandria Hoff contributed to this report.
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