In light of Bill Cosby’s release from prison Wednesday, locals are sounding the alarm for a glitch in the law.
Some are placing blame on the prosecutors while others blame the criminal justice system as a whole.
In an unexpected reversal in Pennsylvania’s highest court, the former comedian and TV actor’s sexual assault conviction was thrown out — “on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime,” according to District Attorney Kevin Steele, who decided to arrest the celebrity.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor who brought the case, Mr. Steele, was bound by an agreement by his predecessor not to charge Mr. Cosby, even though there is no evidence that the promise was ever put in writing, according to The Associated Press.
The 83-year-old celebrity served nearly three years of his three- to 10-year sentence. He was convicted for an incident in 2004, when he drugged and violated Andrea Constand, the Temple University sports administrator. While Mr. Cosby was only charged and convicted for that singular assault, five other individuals testified in court that they, too, were victims of his sexual assault.
Mr. Cosby tweeted a photo of himself on Wednesday with a caption thanking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for “upholding the rules of law,” writing, “I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence. Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal.”
The Bill Cosby trial was the first one involving a celebrity in the #MeToo era in 2015, when the first district attorney filed charges mere days before the deadline for the 12-year statute of limitations.
Justice David Wecht wrote for a split court and said that Mr. Cosby — who, at one point, held the nickname “America’s Dad” — relied on that original attorney’s decision not to charge him when he gave his potentially incriminating testimony in the civil case. Defendants have a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“District attorney No. 1 heard the facts of this case and felt that he could not prosecute the case for whatever reason,” Joyce Dudley, the Santa Barbara County district attorney, told the News-Press Thursday. “Either it was beyond the statute of limitations, he didn’t think the evidence was strong enough or some legal theory.”
Ms. Dudley explained that as district attorneys, “We speak as one voice,” meaning that when one makes a promise, it carries over to another. Without knowing if district attorney No. 2 was aware of the promise or if the same testimonies were given, Ms. Dudley said she couldn’t point fingers and say who was wrong.
However, she did point out another case that occurred in Santa Barbara that — in the same nature — overturned the facts and evidence of the case because of a “glitch in the law.”
She referenced a February 2009 case, where a man allegedly broke into a home on Haley Street. A couple was staying in the home, and the boyfriend was sleeping on the couch in the living room while the girlfriend was asleep in her bed. The man allegedly sneaked into the girlfriend’s bedroom and initiated sex with her. The girlfriend said she thought it was her boyfriend, so initially consented to the advances, but when she woke up and realized it was not, she screamed and resisted.
The state law that would have protected the girlfriend was from 1872, but stated that a person who impersonates someone is guilty of rape — only if the victim is married and the perpetrator is pretending to be the spouse. Ms. Dudley said her hands were tied, and she couldn’t charge the man for rape “even though this woman was absolutely raped.” She even found several other cases where the same man broke into other women’s homes.
“So I brought her into the office and told her, ‘Look, there’s no question in my mind you were raped, but there is this weirdness in the law — because he wasn’t your husband, it wasn’t rape by fraud,’ ” Ms. Dudley said. “She looked at me like I was the meanest person in the world and stormed out of my office.”
This motivated Santa Barbara County’s district attorney to lobby to change the law, and after a three-year effort, succeeded.
She said this example is relevant because, “What happened was exactly what happened in terms of Cosby. If you don’t do it correctly, even if you have all the emotion and all the passion and all the rights on your side, things like this can happen.”
And when things like this happen, Ms. Dudley said, not much can likely be done because re-trying it would probably result in double jeopardy. However, she added that her gut is telling her that “both prosecutors really cared about the victims and wanted to make it better.”
“It’s not throwing up our hands and saying, ‘See, here’s another example of another victim not being listened to and being believed.’ It sounds to me like they just wanted to make it better,” she said. “The fact is that we did take a powerful man down, and the fact is that he was in prison for two years. He’s in his 80s, and there was some punishment. Was it enough? No. It was completely not enough, but it was something, and it was a guilty verdict.”
However, according to national media reports, advocacy groups for sex-crime victims are still expressing concerns that fewer victims will step forward and choose the legal route to hold perpetrators accountable.
The community education coordinator for Standing Together to End Sexual Assault — a Santa Barbara nonprofit that provides confidential counseling and support services to survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones — said the entire staff was disappointed with Wednesday’s ruling.
“Then we automatically started thinking about prevention,” Bianca Orozco told the News-Press Thursday. “What his release demonstrates is that there needs to be a transformation in the criminal justice system.”
The community education coordinator said it’s important to realize this is a high-profile case that people have access to online and on TV, that “survivors are watching.”
“They’re watching how high-profile survivors are being treated, and if they’re being treated with respect and dignity, then a survivor at home will feel empowered at home and choose to go to law enforcement,” Ms. Orozco said. “If they’re treated with disrespect or not believed, they will feel more reluctant to share their stories …”
She explained that the nonprofit’s focus for victims is to simply provide them as much information and support as possible, and allow them to make their own decision on how to heal from it. Staff avoids pressuring anyone into coming forward.
“We need to be aware that Bill Cosby was released under a technicality,” Ms. Orozco said. “The criminal justice system, we’ve seen it fail survivors time and time again. That’s one of the reasons we need to expand those other options in case they don’t want to go the legal route.”
Ms. Constand, the victim in the 2004 incident, and her team posted a statement on Twitter as well following the ruling, saying, “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.”