Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sensemaker audio

Why Bill Cosby was freed

Why Bill Cosby was freed

Comedian Bill Cosby was jailed for sexual assault – one of the highest-profile stars held to account after the #MeToo movement. So why has he just walked free?

Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, why one of the most high profile MeToo convictions just got overturned. 


“We now have a sentence  in the Bill Cosby sexual assault case…”


Once hailed as “America’s Dad”, Bill Cosby went from beloved entertainer to convicted sex offender.

“… Mr Cosby has been sentenced for three to 10 years in state prison.”


Back in 2018, Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of indecent assault against former basketball player Andrea Constand. She’d accused him of drugging and molesting her at his home in 2004. 

And after Andrea Constand spoke out, dozens more women came forward with similar allegations against him.   

“I took a couple of sips of the cappuccino and from the first sip and then the second sip I knew I had been drugged. I mean I was woozy, my speech was slurred.”

Beverly Johnson, supermodel and business woman

A clear pattern was emerging in the accusations – women were drugged, and then taken advantage of – and this had allegedly been happening for decades, all the way back to when Bill Cosby was just a rising star. 

So when what many saw as a long-overdue conviction did come for Bill Cosby, there was huge relief. 

But this week, after just three years behind bars, he walked free.

“Good day, we’re coming back on the air with more breaking news about Bill Cosby. The comedian was just released from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the 83-year old actor’s sexual assault conviction.”

NBC News

It came as a shock. So, what happened?


When Andrea Constand first went to the police about Bill Cosby in 2005, she met a prosecutor called Bruce Castor. 

He reviewed her allegations, and decided not to press criminal charges against the comedian. 

But he didn’t just leave it there. 

“There was not enough evidence to arrest and convict him. The choices became do nothing or do something, I chose to do something.”

Bruce Castor, lawyer and former Pennsylvania Attorney General

Bruce Castor is a pretty well known lawyer across America’s courtrooms. He recently represented former president Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial.

And he’s known for being able to strike deals in court. 

In Bill Cosby’s case, he struck a pretty crucial one.

“Well Jim it was a promise, a promise from Castor to Cosby that he wouldn’t be prosecuted but it was in order to get that deposition, to help Andrea Constand.”

6abc Philadelphia

Bruce Castor promised not to charge Bill Cosby if he testified in Andrea Constand’s lawsuit. And because of that promise, that guarantee that there wouldn’t be a criminal case against him, Bill Cosby said some important things in a series of depositions in 2005.

He admitted that he obtained quaaludes, a type of sedative, to use on women he wanted to have sex with.

And the statements that Bill Cosby made at this trial are really important because a decade later, a different prosecutor – one who reopened Andrea Constand’s case – used those statements in a criminal trial against Bill Cosby. 

And that time, he was convicted. 

“Some breaking news… one of the world’s best known entertainers appears to be heading to a prison cell very shortly. A judge in Pennsylvania has just sentenced Bill Cosby to no less than three and no more than ten years behind bars.”

ABC News


It was the use of those 2005 statements that a judge has now decided was a violation of Bill Cosby’s Fifth Amendment rights. The right against self-incrimination. 

“In fact that lay at the heart of today’s Supreme Court ruling to vacate the conviction.”

6abc Philadelphia

In a 79-page report, Pennsylvania’s highest court said that breaching the deal Bill Cosby had struck with Bruce Castor – that he wouldn’t face a criminal trial – was a quote, “process violation” by the prosecution. 

A violation so severe that Bill Cosby’s conviction was overturned. 

But this deal wasn’t the only reason that the Supreme Court overturned it. Five other accusers from the 1980s were brought to the stand during the second trial in 2015.

“The other issue which I consider the major issue, was the propriety of allowing all these other women to testify against Cosby when he was being charged with one sexual assault.”

Vinu Varghese, former prosecutor and white collar federal criminal defence attorney

And the courts ruled their testimonies had tainted the trial… 

The five witnesses… the evidence that they gave shouldn’t have been admitted because they were not eyewitnesses to the allegation that was being made in the case

BBC News

So because of these procedural issues, the judges said Bill Cosby can walk free. But this could have a huge impact on other MeToo cases.

Because cases involving men like Bill Cosby and the former film producer Harvey Weinstein often rely on accounts from multiple victims. Their testimony can help show patterns of behaviour which could then lead to a conviction. 

But if their supporting accounts are no longer considered in evidence, it might not just be Bill Cosby walking free.  


Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper and Nimo Omer.