After serving nearly three years, Bill Cosby has been released from prison after the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned his 2018 sexual assault conviction, which could have implications for Harvey Weinstein’s own appeal.
The 83-year-old actor was found guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and raping Temple University employee Andrea Constand in Philadelphia in 2004, becoming the first celebrity to be tried and convicted in the #MeToo era.
But Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned the conviction Wednesday, ruling that an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented Cosby from being charged in the case.
So what does that mean for fallen movie mogul Weinstein, a once-powerful Hollywood figure, similar to Cosby, whose case helped fuel the #MeToo movement in 2017?
Bill Cosby’s sex assault conviction overturned by PA Supreme Court
What is the status of Harvey Weinstein’s case?
Weinstein, 69, was sentenced to 23 years in prison after a New York jury found him guilty of first-degree sexual assault and third-degree rape in February 2020.
In April, Weinstein’s lawyers filed an appeal, calling his trial “unconstitutional” for failing to guarantee him a “fair and impartial jury trial.” The brief argues that Weinstein’s convictions should be reversed, the third-degree rape charge dismissed as time-barred (outside the statute of limitations) and a new trial ordered on the single count of first-degree criminal sexual act.
Weinstein is set to be extradited to Los Angeles County next month to face nearly a dozen sex-crime charges there.
Harvey Weinstein appeals ‘unconstitutional’ NY sex-crime conviction, requests new trial
Similarities exist in Bill Cosby’s and Harvey Weinstein’s appeals
Both Cosby’s and Weinstein’s cases involve multiple “prior bad acts” accusers who testified about separate and uncharged crimes to demonstrate an alleged “pattern” by the defendants, an important issue cited in their respective appeals.
During Cosby’s 2018 retrial, the judge allowed five other accusers to testify about their experiences with Cosby in the 1980s. During Weinstein’s 2020 trial in New York, the judge let four other accusers testify about uncharged alleged crimes.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted Cosby’s appeal in June 2020, citing two issues, including whether Cosby’s second trial was tainted by the testimony of the “prior bad acts” accusers.
Although the court ultimately overturned Cosby’s conviction after finding an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented Cosby from being charged in the case, the Pennsylvania justices voiced concerns about the judiciary’s increasing tendency to allow testimony that crosses the line into character attacks.
In Weinstein’s April appeal, his legal team argued the additional testimony violated New York precedent, which prohibits the introduction of uncharged crimes for the sole purpose of showing that a defendant has a “propensity” to commit a crime.
The law on “prior bad acts” testimony varies by state, though, and the ruling only holds sway in Pennsylvania.
Randy Zelin, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney who teaches at Cornell Law School, tells USA TODAY that the decision contained a “suggestion” that overuse of “prior bad acts” witnesses by prosecutors may “give prosecutors pause.”
Cosby’s ruling gives Weinstein’s team ‘confidence’
Weinstein’s legal team said in a statement issued by spokesman Juda Engelmayer that the reversal in the Cosby case shows that “courts can be relied upon to follow the law and come to the correct decision.”
“This decision also reaffirms our confidence that the Appellate Division in New York will reach the similarly correct decision in Harvey Weinstein’s appeal, considering the abundance of issues that cry out for a reversal,” Arthur Aidala, one of Weinstein’s attorneys, said in the statement.
News of Bill Cosby’s release shocks.For survivors of abuse, it’s ‘very triggering.’
Could Cosby’s ruling influence New York judges?
Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a Dallas-based trial attorney who represented multiple gymnasts abused by former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar, tells USA TODAY that the Cosby decision “doesn’t set any binding precedents because New York and Pennsylvania are two different states” with “different policies and elected officials.”
But Tuegel says New York justices “will be aware of” the public ruling, which can be “persuasive” in such a high-profile case. “It’s concerning that other courts will see the ruling and it will be in their subconscious,” says Tuegel, who argued the Pennsylvania high court “got it wrong.”
Will this prevent sexual assault victims from coming forward?
In a statement provided to USA TODAY, Elizabeth Fegan, who represented Weinstein survivors, said Cosby’s ruling will make survivors of sexual abuse “less willing to step forward, afraid that the legal system is stacked against them.”
Kevin Steele, the Montgomery County district attorney who convicted Cosby, said he hopes the decision “will not dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims,” in a statement to USA TODAY.
Bill Cosby release news shocks. For survivors of abuse, it’s ‘very triggering.’
Leaders of the #MeToo movement, which subsequently brought down dozens of powerful men in the entertainment industry after going viral in October 2017 following misconduct allegations against Weinstein, called Cosby’s decision “triggering” for assault survivors.
“It is a miscarriage of what little accountability survivors are afforded by our legal system,” #MeToo movement executive director Tarana Burke and CEO Dani Ayers said in a news release provided to USA TODAY.
Contributing: Maria Puente