Bill Cosby has been freed from prison and returned home, less than two hours after Pennsylvania's highest court overturned his sexual assault conviction, saying he never should have faced charges after striking a non-prosecution deal with a previous district attorney more than 15 years ago.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its 4-3 split decision on Wednesday after Cosby had served more than two years of a three- to 10-year sentence following his 2018 conviction. The 83-year-old actor and comedian was released from a state prison in Pennsylvania just before 2.30pm (4.30am on Thursday AEST), a corrections department spokesperson said.
About an hour later, he arrived at his mansion in Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb, before making a brief appearance alongside his lawyers in front of the media. A frail-looking Cosby smiled and nodded when asked if he was happy to be home, but he did not answer reporters' questions. Later, Cosby posted a statement to on Twitter, thanking his supporters and saying: "I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence."
Cosby is best known for his role as the lovable husband and father in the 1980s television comedy series The Cosby Show, earning him the nickname "America's Dad". But his family-friendly reputation was shattered after dozens of women accused him of sexual assault over a period of decades. His conviction was widely seen as a watershed moment in the #MeToo movement that brought forth an array of allegations against powerful men in Hollywood and beyond.
Cosby was found guilty of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand, an employee at his alma mater Temple University, at his home in 2004. Constand's allegations were the only ones against Cosby that were not too old to allow for criminal charges. The court's decision expressly barred prosecutors from retrying Cosby.
In a statement, Constand and her lawyers said they were disappointed in the ruling and concerned it could dissuade other victims from seeking justice. "Once again, we remain grateful to those women who came forward to tell their stories," they said.
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, who charged Cosby in 2015, noted that a jury found Cosby guilty and Wednesday's decision was not based on the facts of the case. Reaction was swift, with many women involved in the #MeToo movement expressing horror at the decision.
"THIS is why women do not come forward," writer E Jean Carroll, who has accused former president Donald Trump of raping her in the 1990s, wrote on Twitter. Trump has denied her claim. Lisa Bloom, a lawyer who represented some of Cosby's accusers, told CNN she was "absolutely disgusted and shocked".
But Phylicia Rashad, Cosby's co-star on The Cosby Show, celebrated the ruling for correcting "a miscarriage of justice". The court's majority found a state prosecutor, Bruce Castor, made a deal with Cosby's lawyers in 2005 not to bring criminal charges after concluding he could not win a conviction.
As a result, Cosby was unable to avoid testifying as part of a civil lawsuit that Constand brought against him, since defendants can only refuse to testify when faced with criminal prosecution. In a deposition, Cosby acknowledged giving women sedatives to facilitate sexual encounters, though he maintained they were consensual. He eventually paid Constand a multimillion-dollar settlement.
His admission, which a judge unsealed in 2015, helped form the basis for criminal charges that year. The prosecution, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found, essentially amounted to reneging on Castor's earlier promise not to charge Cosby, violating his due process rights.
Castor made national headlines in February as a member of former President Donald Trump's legal defence team during Trump's impeachment trial in the US Senate. In an interview, Castor said his deal with Cosby was the only way to ensure he would pay some sort of penalty via a civil lawsuit.
Cosby's first trial ended with a hung jury in 2017. He was found guilty at a second trial after the judge allowed prosecutors to call five prior accusers - four more than in the first trial.
Joseph Ax and Jonathan Stempel - AAP