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The Legitimacy of Bill Cosby's Overturned Conviction

Can there be exceptions in forming judgements concerning a standing law? I asked myself while reading about Bill Cosby and his release.

If all of morality is weighed on the side against law, are we still obliged to follow it?

Without law and governance, we do not have a functioning society. And, yet student activists today are being jailed in India under the draconian UAPA or, in the 20th century, Nazi Germany comprised of a government once whose own law dictated the dark days of holocaust. Surely, we need law and order in a liberal society to accommodate for a standard of justice and security, but there are these rarest of times like the case of Bill Cosby’s revoked conviction which makes one doubt their faith in the legal justice system more than their usual scepticism.

So, the question is what exactly happened and why it is a big deal.

This is not an article on an individual unfortunate incident but about the saga of millions of women who raised their voices against their oppressors in the watershed #MeToo movement which got indignified if not invalidated by the release of Bill Cosby.

Source: The New Yorker

What was the Lawsuit?

Bill Cosby is an American stand-up comedian and actor once known to all as “America’s beloved Dad” from The Cosby Show. In 2005, Bruce L. Castor Jr, a former district attorney (DA) prosecuted Mr Cosby while representing Andrea Constand, then mentee of the actor and employee at the Temple University. It was a civil lawsuit for the sexual assault of the plaintiff.

Now, generally, a charge as profound as sexual assault warrants a criminal trial. However, there was insufficient evidence against the defendant - Cosby - therefore this civil trial was initiated instead, with the expectation to attain some monetary reparation for the reprehensible act which had been committed.

During this trial, given the statutes of limitations in their case, in order to get Ms Constand some justice as opposed to a potentially lost battle, Mr Castor claimed that he was left with no choice but to negotiate with Mr Cosby. In an agreement, he gave Bill Cosby immunity, which was to not go after him for whatever he confesses in his testimony in exchange for him not taking the fifth amendment on the stand, which is the right against self-incrimination.

Right against self-incrimination is a legal privilege afforded to all citizens of a country in which they can refuse to make any statement that may expose themselves to punishment for a crime.

According to the former DA, if Mr Cosby had pleaded the fifth in an alternative paradigm without the deal, they would not have had a leg to stand on. Therefore, this assurance of protection led to Mr Cosby’s owning up to his crimes in the trial and Andrea receiving $3.38 million in compensation.

A necessary clarification here would be that there was no written record or documentation of this ‘non-prosecution agreement’ but a verbal promise within closed doors to defend its validity.

Ten years later, in 2015, ignoring that promise as its legitimacy encompassed conjectures and ambiguity, successors of Bruce Castor in the District Attorney’s office pursued Bill Cosby’s sexual assault case under criminal lawsuit now, based on his self-incriminating statements back in the 2005 trial which gave them an excuse to put a man responsible for the victimhood and trauma of 50 different women behind bars, by capitalising on the strong evidence unfolded in the Constand case.

In consequence, in 2018, for the first time, a high profile criminal was legally convicted of sexual assault amidst the upsurge of women rising in solidarity during the #MeToo movement to expose their abusers. This conviction gave them hope and further incentive to come forward with their otherwise suppressed experiences.

However, this victory was short-lived.

On 30th June 2021, the conviction which had bought Bill Cosby 3-10 years of prison time got overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It was done so in an ode to the virtue of that promise made by a representative of the legal institution so that the integrity of the “justice system” be maintained and precedents to justify ignoring legal jurisdiction may be avoided.

Was overturning the conviction legitimate?

A lot of conjecture regarding this case once again has risen due to this dramatic reversal of the previous decision which found the man guilty.

Feminists and activists all around the world have been more so triggered by the lack of remorse showcased by the 83-year old, who on release flashed a victory gesture with his hand at the media.

According to a report by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), out of every 1000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free, so why does this case ring so personal to a lot of people?

Probably because this case and its journey documented and broadcasted so meticulously by the media (almost risking yellow journalism) over the years became emblematic of the efficacy and credibility of social movements and dampened fear among the weak and vulnerable minority against exposing the wrongdoings of the people occupying higher echelons of power. The overturn, many have expressed concern, might have adversely affected victims of similar crimes because even though Bill Cosby was found guilty by a jury, he was now free just because of a procedural loophole that was irrelevant to the facts of the crime.

Therefore, given the social cost of this overturn, was this really a legitimate decision?

According to the proponents of the 79-page judgement of the judges of the Supreme Court, yes.

An interesting perspective to this controversy has brought forth the idea that some rights are more fundamental than others, which is to say, even prisoners of heinous crimes are afforded certain rights which are rudimentary to human empathy and decency like the right to an attorney, food and so on. According to the 6-1 ruling which overturned the verdict, the utilitarian interest for social good in any given environment cannot supersede the fundamental and constitutional right (against self-incrimination) of an individual which was indeed violated when the Cosby case was reopened in 2015. In other words, the women’s right to a safe environment is definitely important to advocate and protect but it cannot be provisioned at the infringement of another right, particularly if this right safeguards an individual’s autonomy or equal opportunity in a democratic regime.

However, does Cosby’s release mean that he is emancipated from his actions? No. At the end of the day, he is still the man who drugged and violated young women who had trusted and looked up to him. And no court ruling can erase his culpability in the monstrous crimes that he had indulged in. The proof of which permanently stays in public records.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be any further criminal prosecution of the man from the other 49 victims due to the same statutes of limitations and lack of existence of hard evidence against the comedian. So, he, in all probability, might not be facing any jail time again.

This begs the question of whether the Supreme Court should have barred further prosecution on the case.

According to Justice Thomas G. Saylor, the verbal promise made by District Attorney Bruce Castor should not have been extended to unconditional terms to be imposed on any future attorney wishing to pursue the case given that there was no written obligation recorded. On the other hand, Justice Kevin Dougherty believed that the better solution should have rather been making those statements inadmissible in court instead of permanently closing the case as there could have been further investigations or other avenues to venture into for a fair trial that could have not given Cosby the licence to walk free which the current verdict did.


As law and morality are components of social construct, they invariably become subjected to human error and fallibility. Hence, both become eligible for amendments and transition over time.

In a utopian society, they both are supposed to fall on the same side, however, in the real world, they often end up taking opposite stands. In such situations, it is rather unfair for one to look at it through a pure black and white lens. What is moral for one person, maybe immoral for another and at the same time greater number of laws tend to reflect the morality of the time they were fashioned in, which may not be compatible with the present society. Therefore, this makes them prey to debate and dissonance.

Having acknowledged that, the legitimacy of Bill Cosby’s overturned conviction is not a tale of irony in preserving justice. It is a testament to the inference that even though the overturn may have validity in its legal sphere, it does not extend the same legitimacy to his assaults whatsoever. Rather, it highlights them for the world to see and identify.

Bill Cosby’s image has indefinitely been besmirched by his actions. The once-beloved “Dad of America” in all ways but one has been disowned by its people regardless of the court’s decision and hence been defeated and that is a legitimate fact.

Author’s Bio:

Anwesha Bhajan is currently pursuing her graduation at Symbiosis School of Economics. She takes interest in topics pertaining to philosophy, political economy and social issues.

Instagram: anwesha_bh


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