Bill Cosby was released from prison Wednesday after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his 2018 conviction for sexual assault, a dramatic reversal in one of the first high-profile criminal trials of the #MeToo era.
The court’s decision seemed likely to end the Pennsylvania case, legal experts said, and while more than 50 women across the nation have accused Mr. Cosby of sexual assault and misconduct, statutes of limitations in their cases makes further prosecutions unlikely.
Mr. Cosby had served three years of a three- to 10-year sentence at a maximum-security prison outside Philadelphia when the court ruled that a “non-prosecution agreement” with a previous prosecutor meant that Mr. Cosby should not have been charged in the case.
Mr. Cosby, 83, returned to his home in suburban Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon where, looking frail and walking slowly, he was helped inside by his lawyer and a spokesman. He flashed a “V” sign as he reached his front door.
The court’s decision overturned the first major criminal conviction of the #MeToo era, which came soon after allegations of sexual assault had been made against the powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The accusations and eventual conviction of Mr. Cosby stunned the nation, painting a disturbing portrait suggesting that a man who had brightened America’s living rooms as a beloved father figure had been a sexual predator.
The case against Mr. Cosby began with his arrest in 2015 on charges that he had drugged and sexually assaulted a woman at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs 11 years earlier. In April 2018, the jury convicted Mr. Cosby of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, to whom Mr. Cosby had been a mentor and who was at the time a Temple University employee.
Ms. Constand had praised the guilty verdict at the time, saying, “Truth prevails,” and the National Organization for Women called it “a notice to sexual predators everywhere.” But Mr. Cosby’s lawyers, who had said at the time that allegations against Mr. Weinstein would make it difficult for them to receive a fair trial, later suggested in an appeal that the outcome had been influenced by what they described as a period of “public panic.”
In a statement issued with her lawyers, Ms. Constand said Wednesday that the court’s ruling was “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.”
In their 79-page opinion, the judges wrote that a previous prosecutor’s statement that Mr. Cosby would not face charges, which paved the way for Mr. Cosby to testify in a civil trial, meant that he should not have been charged in the case. It was a 6-to-1 ruling, with two of the judges in the majority dissenting on the remedy, which barred a retrial.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which overturned Mr. Cosby’s conviction, wrote that a “non-prosecution agreement” that had been struck with Bruce L. Castor Jr., the former district attorney, meant that Bill Cosby should not have been charged in the case for which he was convicted and sentenced in 2018. The court also barred a retrial. Read the full 79-page opinion.Read Document 79 pages
The case began in 2005, when Mr. Cosby was investigated in the case of Ms. Constand, and a former district attorney of Montgomery County said that he had given Mr. Cosby his assurance that he would not be charged in the case. The former district attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr., announced in a news release at the time that after an investigation he had found “insufficient” evidence. He later testified that he had given Mr. Cosby the assurance to encourage him to testify in a subsequent civil case brought by Ms. Constand. (A civil suit she filed against Mr. Cosby was settled in 2006 for $3.38 million.)
In that testimony, Mr. Cosby acknowledged giving quaaludes to women he was pursuing for sex — evidence that played a key part in his trial after Mr. Castor’s successors reopened the case and charged Mr. Cosby in December 2015. That was just days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired in the case, and it came amid a number of new allegations from women who brought similar accusations of drugging and sexual assault against Mr. Cosby.
“In light of these circumstances, the subsequent decision by successor D. A.s to prosecute Cosby violated Cosby’s due process rights,” the appeals ruling said.
Mr. Cosby posted a picture of himself, with a fist raised above his head and his eyes closed, on Twitter, writing: “I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence.”
Mr. Castor, who this year served as a lawyer for President Donald J. Trump during his second impeachment trial, said after the ruling was delivered on Wednesday that he believed his decision in 2005 had been “exonerated” by the ruling, calling the verdict a “shellacking” for the current district attorney’s office.
“I was right back in 2005 and I’m right in 2021,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m proud of our Supreme Court for having the courage to make an unpopular decision.”
Brian W. Perry, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Cosby, said he was “thrilled” with the ruling. “To be honest with you, we all believed, collectively, that this is how the case would end,” he said. “We did not think he was treated fairly and fortunately the Supreme Court agreed.”
The Montgomery County district attorney, Kevin R. Steele, said that he hoped the decision would not “dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims.”
“He was found guilty by a jury and now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime,” Mr. Steele said in a statement. “I want to commend Cosby’s victim Andrea Constand for her bravery in coming forward and remaining steadfast throughout this long ordeal, as well as all of the other women who have shared similar experiences.”
Patricia Steuer, 65, who accused Mr. Cosby of drugging and assaulting her in 1978 and 1980, said that she had been preparing herself for the possibility that Mr. Cosby’s conviction would be overturned but that she was still “a little stunned” by the court’s ruling on Wednesday.
“I’m wondering what the 43-year ordeal that I went through was supposed to be about,” said Ms. Steuer, who said she found out about the decision on Facebook. But she said she was “consoled by the fact that I believe we did the only thing that we could, which is to come forward and tell the truth.”
Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said: “We are deeply disappointed in today’s ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and by the message this decision sends to the brave survivors who came forward to seek justice for what Bill Cosby did to them. This is not justice.”
Others expressed support for Mr. Cosby. Phylicia Rashad, who appeared as Mr. Cosby’s wife in “The Cosby Show,” praised the decision on Twitter. “FINALLY!!!!” Ms. Rashad, who was recently named the dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, wrote on Twitter. “A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” (She later wrote: “I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth.”)
The decision undoes a verdict that several women who said that they had been assaulted and raped by Mr. Cosby had praised at the time as a measure of justice that had been long in coming. In a victim impact statement filed with the court in 2018, Ms. Constand had said of Mr. Cosby: “We may never know the full extent of his double life as a sexual predator, but his decades-long reign of terror as a serial rapist is over.”
And Janice Dickinson, a former model who had told the court that Mr. Cosby raped her in 1982 after giving her a pill — her account was one of five the prosecution presented from women who said he had drugged and sexually assaulted them — said after the sentencing that “My heart is beating out of my chest at the moment.”
“This is fair and just,” she said in 2018. “I am victorious.”
The issue of whether the trial court had improperly allowed additional women to testify was not considered because the panel ruled that Mr. Cosby had relied to his detriment on Mr. Castor’s promise and then made statements in the civil case that were effectively used as evidence against him.
In a dissent, Justice Thomas G. Saylor disagreed that a statement Mr. Castor made in a news release represented an unconditional promise that bound his successor not to prosecute. Justice Kevin Dougherty, in a separate opinion in which he was joined by Justice Max Baer, found that though Mr. Cosby’s due process rights had been violated when he relied on Mr. Castor’s promise and testified in the civil case, the remedy should not have been barring further prosecution but throwing out the evidence the prosecution gained from Mr. Cosby’s testimony.
The reversal now leaves Cosby’s career and reputation in limbo. His conviction, after years of dodging accusations that he had preyed on women, had seemed to cap the downfall of one of the world’s best-known entertainers.
Its overturning undid what many women had seen as an early success of the #MeToo movement, a ruling which had been praised at the time as a sign that the accounts of female accusers were being afforded greater weight and credibility.
Sydney Ember, Matt Stevens and Jon Hurdle contributed reporting.