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Comedian Bill Cosby received an honorary degree from Penn in 1990 which has been revoked in February 2018 due to his sexual assault allegations. (Photo by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia | CC BY 2.0)

Comedian Bill Cosby, who received a since-revoked honorary degree from Penn, was released from prison on Wednesday after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his 2018 sexual assault conviction.

At 83 years old, Cosby was released from State Correctional Institution – Phoenix in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, after the court ruled that he had been denied his due process rights in the 2018 trial.

In September 2018, Cosby was found guilty of three counts of aggravated assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. He was convicted for a sentence of three to 10 years and was nearly three years into that sentence before being released on Wednesday. The case is often noted as the first major conviction of the #MeToo movement, which aimed to spread awareness for victims of sexual assault and abuse.

Cosby had received an honorary degree from Penn in 1990 and was the speaker at Commencement in 1997.

In 2015, Donna Barrett, one of dozens of women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault, alleged that Cosby groped her from behind while she was officiating the 2004 Penn Relays. In response, students called on Penn to revoke Cosby’s honorary degree. While the University initially refused, in February 2018, two years after allegations surfaced, Penn revoked Cosby’s degree.

Cosby appealed his conviction in 2019 on the grounds that the testimonies of five women besides Constand had been admitted into the trial. Though a Pennsylvania appellate court rejected his appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to re-examine the case in December 2020.

Constand had previously settled a civil suit against Cosby for $3.4 million after then-Montgomery Country district attorney Bruce Castor Jr. said he did not believe he had enough evidence to prosecute criminally. 

Since Castor Jr. had promised Cosby that he would not be prosecuted criminally, Cosby’s Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination was waived, and he revealed that he had given women sedatives to women he was pursuing for sex.

Since this evidence was used by new prosecutors as a central part of his 2015 trial, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the conviction was invalid.

“When a prosecutor makes an unconditional promise of non-prosecution, and when the defendant relies upon that guarantee to the detriment of his constitutional right not to testify, due process of law in our criminal justice system demands that the promise must be enforced," the 2021 ruling read.

Among those opposed to the ruling was dissenting justice Thomas Saylor. Saylor pointed to the lower Pennsylvania appellate court that found in 2019 that there was no evidence of Castor ever making such a promise.

In a statement released on her Twitter, Andrea Constand and her lawyers Dolores M. Troiani and Bebe Kivitz expressed their disappointment with the overruling of Cosby's sexual assault conviction.

“[The decision is] of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant," the statement read.

Nevertheless, some were pleased with the ruling. Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s wife on The Cosby Show and the sitcom "Cosby" and is an incoming dean at Howard University, was excited by the new development.

She tweeted Wednesday afternoon, “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

Others expressed disappointment at what the overturned conviction could mean for victims of sexual assault.

"What does that say about a woman's worth? A woman's value? Do our lives mean nothing? All of the lives that he damaged," Victoria Valentino, another accuser of Cosby, told CNN. "I'm infuriated. I'm shaking."

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