Introduction: this week, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court overturned Bill Cosby’s 2018 sexual assault conviction. Learn the reason why below.
Note: this article is not legal advice, just general information.
A QUICK 101 ON THE COSBY CASE
Bill Cosby, Once known as “America’s Dad”, was accused of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand at his home in 2004. Cosby argued that the contact was consensual. When the news broke, more than 60 women accused Cosby of sexual misconduct. However, the statute of limitations had expired for all women, except for Andrea Constand. Constand sued Cosby in 2005, premised upon this allegation.
On the criminal side, Cosby’s trial was the first high-profile celebrity criminal trial of the #MeToo era. At the end of trial, Cosby was convicted on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault in 2018, and sentenced to a 10-year sentence.
VIOLATION OF DUE PROCESS RIGHTS
The bedrock of our constitutional rights lies in due process, which requires fundamental fairness in criminal trials. In other words, when you are charged with a crime, our Constitution guarantees certain protections, such as a right to a jury, the right to remain silent, and the right to know the evidence presented against you.
All of these guarantees are guided under the principle of fundamental fairness. Without it, trials could produce unfair convictions for potentially innocent defendants.
Premised upon fundamental fairness, both the State and Federal governments must abide by these rules when prosecuting criminal cases. Prosecutors, regardless of whether they are State or Federal, are held to an extremely high standard because they hold multiple roles: they are officers of the court, victim advocates, and administrators of justice.
As such, when a prosecutor assures or promises something to a defendant, our constitutional due process right requires that “such promise must be fulfilled”. Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971).
The Supreme Court in the Cosby case gave a good explanation of this promise with the following:
“Interactions between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant, including circumstances where the latter seeks enforcement of some promise or assurance made by the former, are not immune from the dictates of due process and fundamental fairness.”
Here, Cosby was given assurances by the district attorney’s office that was ultimately not fulfilled. Specifically, when Constand sued Cosby in 2005, the district attorney’s office promised Cosby that it would not prosecute him if he agreed to a deposition.
The Court explained the district attorney’s promise with the following:
“In accordance with the advice his attorneys, Cosby relied upon D.A. Castor’s public announcement that he would not be prosecuted. His reliance was reasonable, and it resulted in the deprivation of a fundamental constitutional right when he was compelled to furnished self-incriminating testimony.
Cosby reasonably relied upon the Commonwealth’s decision for approximately ten years. When he announced his declination decision on behalf of the Commonwealth, District Attorney Castor knew that Cosby would be forced to testify based upon the Commonwealth’s assurances. Knowing that he induced Cosby’s reliance, and that his decision not to prosecute was designed to do just that, D.A. Castor made no attempt in 2005 or in any of the ten years that followed to remedy any misperception or to stop Cosby from openly and detrimentally relying upon that decision.
In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor D.A.s to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights. No other conclusion comports with the principles of due process and fundamental fairness to which all aspects of our criminal justice system must adhere.”
Considering the different remedies available, the Court ultimately felt that overturning the original conviction was “severe” and “rare”, but warranted as well. The ruling also bars retrying Cosby again, according to the Court’s opinion.
REACTION FROM THE DECISION
Cosby’s spokesman, Andrew Wyatt, gave the following statement on behalf of Cosby:
“This is the justice Mr. Cosby has been fighting for…They saw the light. He waived his Fifth Amendment right and settled out of court. He was given a deal and he had immunity. He should have never been charged.”
The victim, Andrea Constand, had the following to say about the decision:
“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…”
Cosby himself called a local Philadelphia radio station, WDAS-FM, where he stated the following:
“This is for all the people who have been imprisoned wrongfully regardless of race, color, or creed. Because I met them in there. People who talked about what happened and what they did. And I know there are many liars out there.”
HOW COSBY’S APPEAL INFLUENCES OTHER HIGH PROFILE CASES
Oddly enough, Harvey Weinstein’s appeal, which is currently pending, is very similar to Cosby’s appeal. Both appeals involve cases involving accusers who testified about each defendant’s bad acts, and how each man had a sexual “pattern”.
While Cosby’s case was overturned due to the severe prosecutorial errors, the win for Cosby may give the Weinstein legal team confidence. Major decisions, like the case in Cosby, may influence and persuade the New York Appeals Court in the Weinstein case, even if the Cosby case is not binding.
While Mr. Cosby was released on major technicalities, the constitutional lesson regarding the district attorney is clear: prosecutors are supposed to keep their word. That goes for plea agreements, depositions, and communications with defense counsel.
If you or your loved one faces criminal charges at the State or federal level, call Chuck Franklin Law. We are experienced in these matters.
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