The court decision freeing Bill Cosby, explained as best we can
The court decision freeing Bill Cosby is a train wreck. It’s also probably correct.
Bill Cosby, the disgraced comedian who was convicted of sexual assault in 2018, is no longer in prison, due to a state supreme court decision in Commonwealth v. Cosby.
The circumstances that freed him involve a stunning display of prosecutorial incompetence, a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court that split three ways on what should become of Cosby, and a long, rambling judicial opinion that is often difficult to parse.
The thrust of that opinion is that, even though then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor never reached a formal agreement with Cosby that granted him immunity from prosecution, a press release that Castor sent out in 2005 — combined with Cosby’s later, incriminating testimony in a civil lawsuit — had the same effect as a formal immunity deal.
That decision — which, again, attaches a simply astonishing amount of legal weight to a 16-year-old press release — is less ridiculous than it sounds. It does not exonerate Cosby; it merely strikes down his conviction on constitutional grounds. Justice David Wecht’s majority opinion is poorly organized and, at times, quite difficult to follow. But it is rooted in basic principles of contract law that will be familiar to most first-year law students.
The court owed the public, and especially victims of sexual assault, a clearer explanation of why it decided to free Cosby. Though accusations against the former entertainer came to light before the Me Too movement began, he was, as Vox’s Anna North explained, “one of the first high-profile men to face criminal consequences for sexual misconduct” since the movement gained steam. The court’s often-confounding opinion muddies this case’s place in history and may contribute to sexual assault victims’ sense that reporting the crimes against them won’t lead to justice.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the court’s decision was wrong as a matter of law. Six members of the seven-justice Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed that Cosby’s conviction must be tossed out, although only Wecht and three other justices agreed that the state should not be allowed to retry Cosby.