Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled to overturn the Bill Cosby prosecution and immediately release him from prison. This ruling has left many wondering what happened and for good reason; the path to this decision was very convoluted and not well explained on many major media outlets.
Since the conviction was overturned, all criminal convictions against Bill Cosby have essentially been erased. Further, because of the nature of the Court’s ruling, the charges that led to his conviction can’t be brought back against him. Meaning that in the eyes of the law, he is no longer guilty.
So, why did this happen? It is common that when there are both criminal and civil sanctions available that the prosecuting attorney will make a deal to not prosecute the criminal charges so that the defendant is unable to plead the fifth and avoid answering questions for the civil matter. Further, winning a civil case is generally easier than winning a criminal case due to the differing standards of proof.
After the prosecutor promised that he would not bring criminal charges against Bill Cosby, this allowed the plaintiff in the civil lawsuit to put him under oath and force him to answer questions that he would have otherwise been able to plead the fifth to and not answer.
What made this case uncommon was that a new prosecutor reviewed Bill Cosby’s file right before the statute of limitations was going to run on the criminal charges and decided to use the evidence in the civil case to build the criminal case—in a very alarming ruling, the Pennsylvania lower court allowed the prosecutor to unseal the depositions in the civil matter. So, the state government was allowed to make promises to Bill Cosby in order to ensure that the civil lawsuit could go forward and then go back on those promises to charge Bill Cosby criminally; this essentially renders the 5th amendment null and void.
In family law cases, it is not uncommon for civil and criminal matters to cross paths; examples are claims of adultery, family abuse, protective orders, domestic violence, and theft of marital property. In these cases, it is important to understand the intersection of being able to protect yourself with the 5th amendment and also being able to defend yourself against the civil claims. You would not want to rely on a false promise from a prosecutor to not seek criminal charges only for them to later use that reliance against you.