Legal Law

Classes From The Cosby Case

Bill Cosby (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Bill Cosby walked out of jail this week looking a bit worse of for wear. He’d spent over two years in prison after being convicted of aggravated indecent assault and being sentenced to three to 10 years.

The conviction cost him a bundle, and I’m not just talking about lawyers’ fees.  He fell from the heights of being America’s Dad, to the depths of being a sexual pervert charged with secretly giving Andrea Constand quaaludes in order to have sex with her.

Although he got out of jail early and gained back his freedom, he’ll never be the same. The taint of this overturned conviction will stain him forever.  Why? Because he wasn’t acquitted. The prosecution played the game wrong, and that’s why Cosby is now free.

Will this cancel the “MeToo” movement, forever? I doubt it. With the takedown of celebrities like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, the movement has made an indelible mark on the national consciousness. It will not go backward. Prosecutors, judges and police now take these allegations seriously.

But prosecutors can never adopt a stance of win at all costs. No matter how egregious the crime, the law must function with due process or, as this case showed, when prosecutors play fast and lose, eventually it will cost them.

In this case, Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor agreed not to use statements from a deposition Cosby gave in 2005 in order to settle a civil law suit and win a whopping $3.8 million settlement for Constand. But some 10 years later, the new DA, Kevin Steele, changed course, backed off the deal his predecessor made and pushed to use Cosby’s admission to prosecute him just 12 days before the statute of limitations on the crime expired.

Some call this a technicality. It’s not.

If a party confesses to a crime with the understanding that his words are protected, that they won’t be used against him, or revealed to others, the power of the state or federal government must abide by that promise. It’s simply cheating to do otherwise.

The criminal justice system runs on the premise that no one is obliged to self-incriminate. The Miranda warnings exist to alert people that anything they say can and will be used against them. Imagine, a system where prosecutors (arguably the most powerful lawyers in the land) are allowed to lie whenever they want just so they’d be more likely to win. There’d be no law anyone could trust anymore. Who would need a jury, who would need a judge, if the prosecutors had all that power? Who would ever want to cooperate with them again, if that were the case?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the Cosby verdict, ruling that it was wrong to use against Cosby a statement that prosecutors promised wouldn’t be used. Although the issue was hotly litigated in the underlying case, the lower court judges ruled in favor of the prosecution. Turns out, they were wrong. Perhaps they, too, were more interested in pushing the case forward to convict Cosby, rather than neutrally analyzing the law.

Arguably, everyone’s learned a lesson. Judges around the country will hopefully take heed and not be so quick to make rulings favoring the prosecution based on the court of public opinion.

Prosecutors might be more careful in making deals with people they suspect committed crimes, then blatantly break those deals when their office changes leaders or the cultural winds favor a new approach.

Victims of sexual assault will hopefully come forward sooner so that instead of battling lapsed statute of limitations, they have recent evidence of offenses that will convince prosecutors to push their cases forward in a timely manner.

And lastly, people who commit such sexual offenses might take a lesson from Bill Cosby. His criminal case may have been dismissed, but he’s not been acquitted.

He’s been taken down more than a notch. Even though Cosby didn’t spend his full sentence in jail, it’s doubtful he’ll ever do what he’s been accused of again, or ever regain the fame he once had.

Infamy is now where he’ll live, along with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and all the other once-famous men the “MeToo” movement has exposed.

Toni Messina has tried over 100 cases and has been practicing criminal law and immigration since 1990. You can follow her on Twitter: @tonitamess.

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