Bill Cosby was freed on Wednesday after nearly three years in prison following a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn his 2018 conviction on three charges of aggravated indecent assault.
The 83-year-old comedian and actor has long maintained his innocence in the case, which stems from an accusation that he drugged and had sex with a Temple University employee in 2004.
The court ruling on Wednesday resulted from an agreement Mr Cosby struck with a district attorney, Bruce Castor, in 2005 wherein Mr Castor declined to prosecute Mr Cosby in exchange for the comedian’s testimony during a civil trial. Mr Cosby served more than two years of a three to 10-year sentence at a state prison near Philadelphia.
Mr Cosby shared a statement on social media: “Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal. I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence. Special thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for upholding the rule of law.” The statement included an image of Mr Cosby punching the air.
The Pennsylvania justices ruled that the agreement prevented prosecution for the claims brought by Andrea Constand, the former director of operations for Temple’s women’s basketball team, and wrote that the prosecutorial discretion of Pennsylvania’s district attorneys was not “free of the constraints of due process”.
Mr Cosby “must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred,” they wrote. “We do not dispute that this remedy is both severe and rare. But it is warranted here, indeed compelled.”
Mr Cosby was released on Wednesday afternoon, a short time after the court’s decision was made public.
The current district attorney of the jurisdiction where the trial took place, Montgomery County, told ABC News in a statement that Mr Cosby “was found guilty by a jury and now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime".
The shocking news comes a year after Mr Cosby’s parole was denied after he declined to participate in a sexual violence program conducted in the prison, with his attorneys arguing at the time that participation in such a program would make their client appear guilty.
Mr Castor previously made a name for himself earlier in 2021 as the lead attorney presenting the defense of President Donald Trump during his second Senate impeachment trial.
According to the documents and testimony reviewed by the Court, Mr Castor agreed to not prosecute Mr Cosby after deciding that there was not enough evidence to go further with prosecution, and in the hopes that Mr Cosby would testify at a civil trial without the benefit of Fifth Amendment protections.
During depositions for that trial, Mr Cosby made incriminating statements that led to his subsequent conviction when the criminal case was reopened years later, but the Supreme Court’s justices ruled that it didn’t matter because of the 2005 decision by Mr Castor not to prosecute.
The high-profile status of Mr Cosby, once known as “America’s Dad” and star of the hugely popular and influential 1980s The Cosby Show , drew national attention to the case. In 2015, President Barack Obama commented on the news, telling reporters: “I'll say this, if you give a woman, or a man for that matter, without his or her knowledge, a drug, and then have sex with that person without consent, that's rape. And I think this country, any civilised country, should have no tolerance for rape.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment on the case specifically at Wednesday’s news briefing, while touting President Joe Biden’s belief that women should be heard when they raise claims of sexual misconduct committed by men.