On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Bill Cosby and barred further prosecution of his alleged crime. This is good news. Not because Cosby is an admirable man or has done nothing wrong — but because legal niceties aren’t just for nice people.
In 2005, Cosby was accused of sexual assault. After interviewing his accuser, the district attorney decided that the case couldn’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The only way she could get any justice, he believed, was through a civil case.
But civil proceedings would be hindered by Cosby’s right not to incriminate himself — a right he would retain as long as he faced the possibility of criminal charges. So the prosecutor publicly announced that he wouldn’t charge Cosby. In depositions for the civil suit, Cosby offered a host of self-incriminating statements that led to a large settlement.
In 2015, a new DA reversed his predecessor’s decision and charged Cosby. The resulting case relied on Cosby’s self-incriminating statements. In the view of the state’s highest court, this reversal constituted a denial of Cosby’s due-process rights.
“Society holds a strong interest in the prosecution of crimes,” the court stated. “It is also true that no such interest, however important, ever can eclipse society’s interest in ensuring that the constitutional rights of the people are vindicated.”
This alone was enough to overturn Cosby’s conviction. It spared the court from pronouncing on another issue that could have blown up the case: The prosecution assembled at least 19 other women who accused Cosby of sexual assault, but all these allegations fell outside the statute of limitations. Nonetheless, one of these women was allowed to testify at Cosby’s first trial, which resulted in a hung jury. At the second trial, which led to a conviction, five of the women were allowed to testify.
The trouble with such testimony is that it denies the defendant the presumption of innocence on the basis of allegations that the state can’t even prosecute.
This strategy was not only used against Bill Cosby. It was employed against Harvey Weinstein, who has cited it — among other things — as grounds for overturning his conviction in an appeal. (Perhaps the strangest aspect of Weinstein’s trial was the fact that the judge refused to remove a juror who had written a #MeToo-themed book and so had a clear interest in the outcome of the case, effectively stripping Weinstein of his right to a fair trial.)
People have been reluctant to examine these facts. Understandably so, because these men have behaved in unquestionably predatory ways. Still, the legal and factual shortcuts raise profound questions about the whole course of #MeToo.
That movement arose when Ronan Farrow published explosive reporting about Weinstein’s alleged assaults. Some of that reporting failed to meet basic journalistic standards, but few cared. Weinstein went to jail, and Farrow went on to a celebrated career that only now has begun to unravel.
Sure of their ability to identify heroes and villains, the promoters of #MeToo have failed to uphold journalistic ethics, the presumption of innocence and due process. Their movement has destroyed the lives of countless people, most of them far less famous than Cosby or Weinstein.
But even the most hateful people have rights. We can’t abridge them simply because a national mood commands us to do so. That is why the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overturned Cosby’s conviction, and why New York courts may overturn Weinstein’s. Vindicating justice requires rejecting the mistakes of #MeToo.
Matthew Schmitz is a senior editor of First Things.