Sexual assault advocates and survivors said Bill Cosby’s release from prison should be a “battle cry” amid concerns the decision could have a chilling effect on survivors seeking to hold their abusers accountable.
Cosby was freed on Wednesday after the supreme court of Pennsylvania reversed his 2018 convictions on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned the conviction because a previous district attorney had promised in 2005 that Cosby would not be charged.
That a procedural issue could prompt the release of a man more than 60 women have accused of rape or sexual assault has placed a light on the harsh realities for survivors seeking justice in court. But advocates said this should not discount the progress that has been made and served as a reminder of why more change is needed to the criminal justice system.
“This is truly a battle cry for the victim rights movement,” Angela Rose, founder and executive director of the advocacy group Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (Pave), told the Guardian. “There is so much that needs to be done and I hope this is a watershed moment to unite survivors across the country.”
Rose also directed survivors who felt triggered by the decision to survivors.org. “They are not alone,” she said.
Cosby’s trial was a landmark moment in the #MeToo movement and brought further scrutiny to statute of limitations laws, which block survivors from pursuing a case after a period of time has passed. Prompted by the Cosby case and decades of lobbying by advocates, California ended its 10-year statute of limitations for rape cases in 2016.
Montgomery county district attorney Kevin Steele brought criminal charges against Cosby in 2015, days before the 12-year statute of limitations on Constand’s case expired. When dozens of other Cosby accusers went public in 2014 and 2015, the statute of limitations had passed for the majority of their cases.
“If people aren’t clear on how there can be so many accusers and so little recourse for justice, then certainly the statute of limitations is what prevented survivors from moving forward on criminal charges,” Rose said.
Though Steele secured a conviction, the case was overturned on Wednesday because of actions by Steele’s predecessor, Bruce Castor. In 2005, Castor sent a press release which said he would not charge Cosby. He also said he reached an agreement with Cosby’s legal team to have Cosby testify in a civil lawsuit with the promise that he would then not be charged in a criminal suit. That case was settled for $3.4m in 2006.
The supreme court debated whether Castor’s agreement with Cosby’s legal team, which was not captured in writing beyond the press release, was binding. Constand and her lawyers said they had not been told of such a deal.
But the court determined it was binding, which meant prosecutors could not charge Cosby.
Castor, who represented Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he felt “vindicated” by the supreme court’s decision.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, Constand and her lawyers said the 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.”
Jane Manning, a former sex crimes prosecutor and director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project, said that she hoped this case would shine a spotlight on the crucial role prosecutors, who are elected by the public, hold in sexual assault cases.
“The MeToo movement has expanded opportunities for survivors of sexual assault to speak out and that’s crucial,” Manning told the Guardian. “What we have not yet done is apply the lessons of the MeToo movement to the criminal justice system and I hope this miscarriage of justice will spur us to do that.”
Manning said she had never seen anything like Castor’s handling of the case. Cosby’s lawyers took the unusual step of having Castor testify in 2016 to get the charges thrown out.
“Does anyone seriously believe that a man as well represented by lawyers as Bill Cosby would rely on a vague verbal agreement as a basis for relinquishing his fifth amendment right?” Manning said. “And yet Bruce Castor’s sloppy lawyering and thoroughly non-credible testimony ended up destroying a criminal conviction that mattered to a lot of people.”
Steele said Cosby was freed “on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime”.
“My hope is that this decision will not dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims. We still believe that no one is above the law – including those who are rich, famous and powerful,” Steele said in a statement.
Attorney Lisa Bloom, who represented three women who accused Cosby of sexual assault, tweeted that she and her clients were “disgusted” that he was freed.
“He is not released because he is innocent,” Bloom said. “He is released because a prosecutor promised him years ago that he would not be brought to justice, without even making a deal for him to do time.”
Attorney Elizabeth Fegan, who is representing women in a case against producer Harvey Weinstein, said it was “deeply disheartening” that the district attorney’s initial decision could have an effect on future claims. “It is equally vexing that current laws will likely prohibit other victims from pursuing Cosby for civil claims because of statute of limitation issues,” Fegan said in a statement.
Fegan said she hoped the decision would empower people to seek change and strengthen laws to hold sexual predators accountable.
But Manning, the former prosecutor, said prosecutorial missteps could not undo the work of sexual assault survivors.
“In the short term it’s a devastating decision, but in the long term I don’t think it undoes the real progress Bill Cosby survivors achieved on behalf of all women,” Manning said. “They showed that a powerful predator could be held accountable and that accomplishment can never be undone.”