Melissa Harris Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris Perry in for Tanzina. In 2018, Bill Cosby, who was then 81, was convicted on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to serve at least three years, and up to 10 years in prison. In may of 2021, Cosby was denied parole, due in part to his refusal to participate in a program for sexually violent offenders. On Wednesday, Bill Cosby was released from prison after the Supreme court of Pennsylvania overturned his conviction due to a procedural issue. Joining me now is Jami Floyd, senior editor for The Race and Justice Unit at New York Public Radio. Jami, thank you so much for being here.
Jami Floyd: Hello, Melissa.
Melissa: How did this happen?
Jami: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, as you say, sided with Bill Cosby and his attorneys in an argument they've been making throughout both criminal trials he went through and the appeals, which is that a former district attorney in the county where he has a home and where this alleged assault took place, had made a promise to Bill Cosby that he would not be prosecuted if he agreed to participate in some other civil litigation, because civil litigation obviously doesn't land you in jail.
Cosby believed that was binding. After the promise was made and when Andrea Constand's allegations first came to life, he did go on to give sworn testimony in a civil trial and he incriminated himself. He said things that were deeply damaging in the criminal context. Things like he would sometimes give drugs to women that he wanted to have sex with. He claimed that he only shared that information because he never thought he'd be charged in the criminal context. The justice has said, Melissa, that these promises should have been kept.
It's not an acquittal. They're not saying that Bill Cosby is innocent. This is critically important to say, because the victims here are devastated, but it's also not a technicality. You were right to call it a procedural issue. You have a fifth amendment right in this country not to incriminate yourself in the criminal context. It is inviolable. It's one of the ones we hold most dear. That's why you get a Miranda warning, all of that kind of thing. Here, he spoke against his interest in court, he gave testimony under oath, believing that the prosecutor would honor the promise.
When he did that, it was a violation, the court said, of that fifth amendment right. It's not a substantive acquittal, but it's more than a technicality. They are sending a signal to prosecutors. Don't make promises you're not going to keep.
Melissa: I want to just go into that one more step because I'm a survivor. I know not only for survivors, but for so many of us, we saw this moment and it feels like such an injustice. I'm also someone deeply committed to criminal justice reform and real criminal justice. On the procedural account, if we can take the Bill Cosby out of it, it actually does matter to have that fifth amendment right protected. If a prosecutor makes that promise to have that be binding. It would be deeply troubling in the long-term for that not to be binding.
Jami: I think this is why talking about the Cosby case matters. It's not because he's a big celebrity, but the reason it matters is for the reasons you just stated. We have victims here who alleged horrific things happened to them and the system, they feel, is failing them. As you point out, there are so many Black and brown men in prison who have intersected with the criminal justice system in ways that have failed them. Prosecutors cannot make promises to the counsel for criminal defendants and then not honor those promises. We certainly have to honor the fourth amendment, search and seizure requirements and the fifth amendment right to not testify against yourself, right against self-incrimination.
When prosecutors, again, make promises, they have to keep them. What happened here just to be clear, Melissa, is the first prosecutor made the promise. The Bill Cosby case actually predates the Me Too movement, as many people will remember. The movement happens and then a new prosecutor comes in and he says, "I am not going to live by this in the midst of this movement. We must honor these women," and wants to, with noble intentions, prosecute Bill Cosby, but the court said, no, no, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has to honor its promises to those whom it is prosecuting.
Melissa: Jami Floyd is the senior editor for The Race and Justice Unit at New York Public Radio, and is helping us to walk through the differences between law and justice and fairness and what feels good and what feels right and what just has to be. Jami, thank you so much for joining us.
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