Bill Cosby has been freed from prison after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction.
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.
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 court said district attorney Kevin Steele, who made the decision to arrest Cosby, was obliged to stand by his predecessor’s promise not to charge Cosby when he later gave potentially incriminating evidence in Ms Constand’s civil suit. There was no evidence that promise was ever put in writing.
Justice David Wecht, writing for a split court, said Cosby had relied on the former prosecutor’s decision not to charge him.
They said overturning the conviction, and barring any further prosecution, “is the only remedy that comports with society’s reasonable expectations of its elected prosecutors and our criminal justice system”.
“FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” the actor’s Cosby Show co-star Phylicia Rashad tweeted.
“I am furious to hear this news,” actor Amber Tamblyn, a founder of Time’s Up, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault, said in a Twitter post. “I personally know women who this man drugged and raped while unconscious. Shame on the court and this decision.”
Four judges formed the majority that ruled in Cosby’s favour, while three dissented in whole or in part.
The 83-year-old TV star, who was once beloved as “America’s Dad”, was convicted of drugging and molesting the Temple University employee at his suburban estate.
The trial judge had allowed just one other accuser to give evidence at Cosby’s first trial, when the jury was deadlocked. However, he then allowed five other accusers to testify at the retrial about their experiences with Cosby in the 1980s.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that evidence 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 evidence varies by state, and the ruling only holds sway in Pennsylvania.
The justices voiced concern not just about sex assault cases, but what they saw as the judiciary’s increasing tendency to allow evidence 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 sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers give evidence. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison, and 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 tranquillisers 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 parole after refusing to participate in sex offender programmes during his nearly three years in state prison. He has long said he would resist the treatment programmes 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 spokesman Andrew Wyatt called the parole board decision “appalling”.
Prosecutors said the TV star repeatedly used his fame and “family man” persona to manipulate young women, holding himself up as a mentor before betraying them.
The groundbreaking black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at 400 million dollars during his 50 years in the entertainment industry. His trademark clean comedy and homespun wisdom fuelled popular TV shows, books and stand-up acts.
He fell from favour in his later years as he lectured the black community about family values, but was attempting a comeback when he was arrested.