Q&A: Why Bill Cosby was let out of jail – and could he face a retrial?

·2 min read
US actor Bill Cosby (2L) walks to briefly address the media with his attorney Jennifer Bonjean (L) and spokeman Andrew Wyatt (R) after he arrived home following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling throwing out Cosby's sexual assault conviction which is expected to result in his release from prison in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, USA, 30 June 2021. Cosby has already served more than two years in prison following his conviction for assaulting Andrea Constand. Bill Cosby to be released after Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out sexual assault conviction, Elkins Park, USA - BASTIAAN SLABBERS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
US actor Bill Cosby (2L) walks to briefly address the media with his attorney Jennifer Bonjean (L) and spokeman Andrew Wyatt (R) after he arrived home following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling throwing out Cosby's sexual assault conviction which is expected to result in his release from prison in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, USA, 30 June 2021. Cosby has already served more than two years in prison following his conviction for assaulting Andrea Constand. Bill Cosby to be released after Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out sexual assault conviction, Elkins Park, USA - BASTIAAN SLABBERS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

What was Cosby convicted of?

In 2018, Bill Cosby was convicted on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to three to ten years in state prison, after being accused of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in his suburban home.


Why was he released?

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that Cosby had reached an immunity deal with prosecutors before a civil lawsuit in 2005. That, found the court, meant that he should not have faced criminal charges in 2015.

The exact details are complicated. There was no formal, signed immunity deal and the court opinion on the case is 79 pages long. However, it points to two key factors.

ndrea Constand arrives at the sentencing hearing for the sexual assault trial of entertainer Bill Cosby at the Montgomery County Courthouse September 24, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. - Pool/Getty Images North America
ndrea Constand arrives at the sentencing hearing for the sexual assault trial of entertainer Bill Cosby at the Montgomery County Courthouse September 24, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. - Pool/Getty Images North America

One, in 2005 the then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor published a press release stating that “a [criminal] conviction under the circumstances of this case would be unattainable.”

Second, during the civil case in 2005, Cosby testified in a civil trial against him. The US constitution protects criminal defendants from being compelled to testify against themselves. However, if they are given immunity from prosecution, then they can be compelled to testify in a civil trial.

Evidence from that civil trial was then used in the later criminal trial of Cosby.

In effect, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken the two events to constitute a de facto immunity deal, despite one never being formally requested from a judge.


Has Cosby been found innocent?

No. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has not ruled on whether Cosby was or was not guilty of the sexual assault charges he was convicted on in 2018 and has not exonerated him. It has simply ruled that placing him on trial in 2018 was unconstitutional, because of events in 2005.


Can he be retried?

No. The Supreme Court ruled out any retrial of Cosby in the Constand case on the basis that Pennsylvania’s treatment of him had been so egregious.

Cosby could still face charges stemming from separate allegations against him, which could yet see him returned to prison, however, those accusations date back decades and could be very difficult to bring to court.

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