Prosecutors had appealed a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which had overturned the conviction on due process grounds.
The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the bid by prosecutors in Pennsylvania to reinstate Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault, a decision that ends the criminal case that had led to imprisonment for the man once known as America’s Dad.
In an order issued Monday, the court said, without elaborating, that it had declined to hear the appeal filed by prosecutors last November.
The Supreme Court’s decision leaves in place a ruling issued by an appellate court in Pennsylvania last year that had overturned Mr. Cosby’s 2018 conviction on due process grounds, allowing Mr. Cosby, 84, to walk free after serving nearly three years of a three-to-10-year prison sentence.
Mr. Cosby had been found guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home outside Philadelphia, though his lawyers argued at trial that the encounter, in 2004, had been consensual.
The case, one of the first high-profile criminal prosecutions of the #MeToo era, drew widespread attention, in part because of Mr. Cosby’s celebrity and in part because dozens of women had over a period of years leveled similar accusations of sexual abuse against the entertainer. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last June that Mr. Cosby’s due process rights had been violated when the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office pursued a criminal case against him despite what the appellate court found was a binding verbal promise not to prosecute given to him by a previous district attorney.
The former district attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr., who said he believed Ms. Constand but was not sure he could win a conviction, said he had agreed years ago not to press charges against Mr. Cosby to induce him to testify in a civil case brought by Ms. Constand. He said the substance of his promise was contained in a news release he issued at the time that said he found insufficient credible and admissible evidence. But he held out the possibility of a civil action “with a much lower standard of proof.” Ms. Constand later received $3.38 million as part of a settlement in her civil case against Mr. Cosby.
During the civil case, Mr. Cosby acknowledged giving narcotics to women as part of an effort to have sex with them, a statement that was later introduced as evidence at Mr. Cosby’s trial.
Following Mr. Cosby’s conviction in 2018, an intermediate appeals court in Pennsylvania found that no formal agreement never to prosecute had ever existed, a position that aligned with what the trial court had ruled.
But in a 6-to-1 ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that Mr. Cosby had, in fact, relied on Mr. Castor’s assurances that he wouldn’t be prosecuted, and that charging Mr. Cosby and using his testimony concerning drugs at the criminal trial had violated his due process rights.
Prosecutors had argued that such a promise had never been made. They said that no one else in the district attorney’s office at the time had been made aware of it and that a news release could not be the basis of a formal immunity agreement.
A spokesman for Mr. Cosby, Andrew Wyatt, welcomed the decision Monday, saying in a statement that the entertainer and his family “would like to offer our sincere gratitude to the justices of the United States Supreme Court for following the rules of law and protecting the Constitutional Rights of ALL American Citizens.”
Ms. Constand and her lawyers released a statement Monday that criticized the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling, in particular faulting the panel for assuming “there was a valid agreement not to prosecute, which was vigorously disputed in the Habeas proceedings, and determined by the trial judge not to exist.”
The Montgomery County district attorney, Kevin R. Steele, released a statement in which he expressed his appreciation to Ms. Constand and described petitioning for Supreme Court review as “the right thing to do,” even though there was only a small chance the court would take up the case.
“All crime victims deserve to be heard, treated with respect and be supported through their day in court,” the statement continued. “I wish her the best as she moves forward in her life.”
Mr. Cosby was first accused in 2005 of having molested Ms. Constand, then an employee of the Temple University basketball team for whom he had become a mentor. The case was reopened in 2015, and Mr. Cosby went through two trials, the first of which ended with a hung jury. The second ended in April 2018, with a jury in Montgomery County convicting Mr. Cosby of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
Both cases were closely watched by many of the women who came forward with similar accusations but statutes of limitations in their cases made further prosecutions unlikely.
Mr. Cosby has consistently denied the accusations that he was a sexual predator, suggesting that any encounters were completely consensual.
Patricia Leary Steuer, who accused Mr. Cosby of drugging and assaulting her in 1978 and 1980, said in an interview on Monday that she felt “a little let down by the decision” but that “it does not change anything for me and the other survivors” since, she said, public sentiment is on their side.
“The survivors did what we were supposed to do which was to come forward and tell the truth and that’s what we did,” she said. “The rest is out of our hands.”
Legal experts had predicted it would be unlikely that the Supreme Court, which denies the vast majority of petitions for review, would take up the Cosby case. For one thing, they said, the case involved a unique set of circumstances that did not necessarily raise far-reaching constitutional issues.
Dennis McAndrews, a Pennsylvania lawyer and former prosecutor who has followed the case, said the Supreme Court typically “looks to determine whether there are compelling issues of constitutional law about which the courts across the country need additional guidance, especially if the case is capable of repetition.”
Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, said the Supreme Court likely considered whether its ruling would have the potential for broader significance outside the parameters of this case. “It’s a very unique set of circumstances,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely to be repeated.”