NORRISTOWN (Pennsylvania) • A Pennsylvania judge refused to dismiss a sexual assault case against Bill Cosby, setting the stage for the first criminal prosecution of the once-celebrated comedian, who has for years denied allegations of assault by dozens of women.
The decision, made on Wednesday, was a loss for the 78-year-old entertainer, who was beloved by US television audiences for his family-friendly brand of humour.
Cosby's attorneys had tried to convince Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court Judge Steven O'Neill that their client could not be prosecuted due to an agreement reached with a former Montgomery County district attorney more than a decade ago. But they never produced a written agreement to that effect.
"I hereby find no basis to grant the relief requested," Mr O'Neill said at the end of a two-day hearing. A Cosby spokesman said an appeal against the decision would be made.
More than 50 women have accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them in attacks dating back to the 1960s. Several civil lawsuits have been filed, though many of the incidents are too old to prosecute.
Cosby, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, was silent through Wednesday's court hearing. He could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
More than 50 women have accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them in attacks dating back to the 1960s. Several civil lawsuits have been filed though many of the incidents are too old to prosecute.
Cosby's attorneys had called former Montgomery County district attorney Bruce Castor as their primary witness. Mr Castor testified that he had agreed not to prosecute Cosby in 2005 to allow him to testify in a civil suit brought by alleged victim Andrea Constand, now 44.
"I was hopeful that I had made Ms Constand a millionaire," Mr Castor testified on Tuesday.
Cosby told the court at the time that he gave Ms Constand what he described as an anti-allergy pill before a sexual encounter that he maintained was consensual.
Defence attorneys presented a 2005 press release from Mr Castor's office that they said amounted to an agreement not to prosecute Cosby.
But current Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele attacked the idea that Cosby's lawyers would allow a deal that was never spelled out in a formal non-prosecution agreement, and contended such a deal would not have legal force.
The judge set a March 8 preliminary hearing for prosecutors to begin to discuss their evidence against Cosby.