In 2018, a jury of his peers convicted Bill Cosby of three counts of aggravated indecent assault, which are felonies in the Common wealth of Pennsylvania. As a result, he was sentenced to serve three to ten years in prison.
However, Cosby is now free after serving almost three years of his sentence subsequent to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling that the comedian was denied due process. In other words, he was not treated fairly under the law.
If that makes you angry, it's okay to feel that way. If that’s your takeaway, it likely has something to do with an appeals court ignoring evidence that jurors found as proof beyond a reasonable doubt Cosby was guilty of the criminal acts the People accused him of committing. On the other hand, you may be upset that the appeals court also prevented a retrial by dismissing the charges outright.
To be fair, there is a lot about the ultimate resolution that may make plenty of people angry. Still, a closer look at the history of the case and the final outcome will hopefully make reasonable individuals feel optimistic about our criminal justice system in this specific instance. Basically, the Cosby appellate victory proves that fair treatment and due process prevail regardless of emotional impact.
District attorney exercises discretion not to prosecute
The allegations made against Cosby by many women over the years portrayed him as a sexual predator who drugged women to assault them sexually. A Pennsylvania investigation into one of those women’s allegations in2005 resulted in a local district attorney’s decision not to file criminal charges due to a lack of credible evidence.
In all honesty, a prosecutor exercising discretion and electing not to file criminal charges based on witness credibility or a lack of evidence occurs more often than many are aware. In Cosby’s situation, however, an unusual twist ultimately lead to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturning his conviction and dismissing all charges against him.
The district attorney in 2005 issued a press release announcing his decision not to pursue criminal charges. After leaving office, the former prosecutor made public statements and gave testimony in court that the intention behind his decision to decline criminal charges was to bind future prosecutors.
According to the former prosecutor, his goal was to help the woman who had made the accusations against Cosby in her civil lawsuit seeking damages against the comedian. Normally, Cosby could refuse to sit for a deposition and be questioned by attorneys through invoking his right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Eliminating the threat of a criminal prosecution would force Cosby to testify, which it did. The civil lawsuit eventually settled with Cosby paying the woman $3.8million.
More allegations by women claiming to be victims of Cosby’s sexual misconduct surfaced in the years following the 2005 decision to decline prosecution. Most of the allegations were beyond the statute of limitations, so in 2015 a new district attorney decided to reopen the 2005 case. However, this time, the prosecution had deposition testimony from Cosby in the civil case to use as evidence in the criminal case.
Due process and the interests of justice
When a prosecutor makes a promise, a person accused in a criminal case has the right to rely upon it. The press release and other public statements made by the district attorney in 2005 were relied upon by Cosby's team of defense attorneys in allowing their client to be questioned at depositions in the civil case.
The appellate court reasoned that the pronouncement by a district attorney that his office would not pursue criminal charges could be, and in fact were, relied upon by Cosby’s attorneys to the detriment of their client. The appellate court may have reached a different result had the district attorney made it clear his decision was based on the evidence at that time, thus leaving it open for review should additional evidence become available in the future.
Because he did not do so, future district attorneys could not refuse to honor the decision.
In announcing the 2005 decision not to prosecute, the district attorney intended to induce Cosby to waive constitutional rights that would have protected him from deposition in the civil case. Due process and fairness dictate that when someone relies to their detriment on promises made by a prosecutor, there should be consequences when the promise is broken. The only result the court found appropriate to restore Cosby to his position prior to the violation was a dismissal of the charges rather than a new trial.
The cost of protecting the innocent
Due process and principles of fundamental fairness form the foundation of the American justice system. Those hallmarks are backed by the code first attributed to British jurist William Blackstone that it is "better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer." Instead of being angry, think of the Cosby case as proof that the system can, and often times does, work.