Analyzing the Cosby Case from a Due Process Perspective

When the Me Too movement arose in 2006, the first face of the movement was Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer whom over 80 women accused of sexual assault and similar sex crimes. While he was eventually prosecuted and imprisoned, the movement’s second big-name accused was Bill Cosby, famed actor and comedian. Over 50 women came forth to announce they too were victims of sexual assault by Cosby, often after he drugged them. One such woman, Andrea Constand, a Temple University women’s basketball director of operations, first accused Cosby of sexual assault that occurred at his Pennsylvania home after drugging her. She claimed he sexually penetrated her among other sexual acts. After her public accusation, dozens more women came forth with their accusations. In 2018, a Pennsylvania jury found Cosby guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault on Constand, and he was sentenced to a minimum of three to ten years in state prison.

What Happened Next

After serving just under three years, Cosby was recently released from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Prior to the ruling, Cosby’s appeal in the Superior Court was denied. In deciding to overturn the conviction, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court cited Cosby’s due process rights had been infringed upon, and thus, the conviction was unconstitutional.

The Basis of the Decision

The decision hinged on an announcement by former Pennsylvania prosecutor Bruce L. Castor, Jr. Castor, which stated that the state would not prosecute Cosby for sexual assault in the Constand case. Castor later asserted that his statement was meant to induce Cosby to speak freely in the civil matter. Believing he would not be criminally prosecuted, Cosby later made self-incriminating statements about drugging women for sex during a sworn deposition in the civil case that Constand brought against him. The civil suit was later settled without going to a trial. Subsequently, before the 12-year statute of limitations on Constand’s case was up, the successor prosecutor to Castor brought charges against Cosby, which led to his conviction.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court judges stated that the former prosecutor’s “non-prosecution agreement” barred the successor prosecutor from bringing charges against Cosby in the Constand case. They further stated that the case could not be retried—the reason for the decision hinged on Cosby’s Fifth Amendment right against self- incrimination. The Fifth Amendment protects an accused individual against forced self-incrimination, affords an accused the right to due process, and protects citizens from being tried twice for the same crime, known as double jeopardy. The Amendment assures that those accused of a crime have due process, meaning they are treated fairly and not forced or tricked to confess statements that could be used as evidence against them. It pertains to fair policing and prosecution practices, especially to preserve the integrity of the judicial system.

Essentially, when Cosby was assured he would not be prosecuted, he incriminated himself on record in a civil suit, and this incriminating evidence was used to prosecute him criminally. Such factual circumstances could be perceived as deceptive practices by the prosecution. In fact, the Supreme Court judges stated in their written opinion that it is fundamentally unfair to induce a defendant to rely on a prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute and then turn around and prosecute him after he gave up his Fifth Amendment right in order to settle a civil suit. Once that evidence from the civil suit was used against him in a criminal trial, the prosecution violated his right to assert his protections against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.

This reasoning also applies to explicitly stated assurances by the prosecution during plea negotiations and discussions pertaining to the plea agreements in criminal cases. Plea agreements are typically made between prosecutors and defendants to obtain a guilty plea or immunity against prosecution in exchange for testimony against another defendant. Courts have repeatedly found that defendants should be able to rely upon statements by the prosecution during these proceedings in order to make conscious, reasoned decisions in their interests.

What the Court’s Reversal Affirms about Due Process Rights in Criminal Cases

Much of the public views Cosby’s release as a travesty, given the overwhelming number of accusations and evidence presented in the case against him, and yet the Pennsylvania Supreme Court faced a tough decision in this case. The decision to reverse Cosby’s conviction sparked heated debate that would cause many engaged in the public discourse to claim a mere technicality allowed a criminal to go free. However, had the court ignored Cosby’s argument and confirmed the conviction, the court may have been perceived as endorsing prosecutors who dupe defendants into giving up their constitutional rights, only to later convict them. The decision weighed the integrity of the judicial system and the Constitution against the singular case of releasing a man convicted by a jury. And so, the decision enforces due process rights of the accused by reinforcing the rules by which prosecutors must obtain convictions.

Had Cosby’s attorneys not persisted and understood the intricacies of the law, he would still be imprisoned serving out his three to ten years. Because he is a celebrity, politics and public opinion gloss over the subtleties of the law, the judicial system, and the Constitution. However, ordinary citizens face similar travesties of justice, with overreaching prosecutors that succeed in convicting those who do not belong in prison, technicality or not. Some prosecutors believe their job is to secure convictions, but that is only one part of their role in the criminal process. They are also representatives of the judicial system and the law. Criminal defense attorneys also protect, not only those accused of crimes, but the entire judicial system when they insist that the agents of the state follow the law.

Contact a New Jersey Defense Lawyer for Help Protecting Your Rights

No matter who you are, you have a right to a fair trial and due process. An experienced criminal defense lawyer, who is wise to what the prosecutors and judges must do to protect your rights and what they must not do, is there to ensure that you are not unjustly prosecuted or imprisoned. If you are accused of any crime in the state of New Jersey, be sure to reach out to discuss your case with a New Jersey criminal defense attorney on our team in a free consultation. We can make sure your rights are preserved. Call 973-524-7238 today for answers and legal assistance.